How to breathe for improved mental and physical wellbeing

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Breathing for mental and physical wellbeing; woman relaxing

Breathing correctly can make a huge difference to conditions such as stress and anxiety. Our breathing expert Aimee Hartley explains what you need to do

Many of us are in short supply of the air necessities of life – here's how to remaster the skill of breathing well and improve your wellbeing as a result.

Why it's important to breathe properly

Breathing for mental and physical wellbeing; man meditating

The human respiratory system is exceptional. While the rest of our physical systems, such as the digestive, circulatory and lymphatic functions, work below our level of awareness, we can bring our conscious mind to every breath.

More than 7.7 billion of us share the same air, but we each have an individual breath pattern. From our childhood experiences to our present-day posture, every aspect of our lives can affect our ability to breathe well. And although we instinctively know how to do it, many of us seem to have lost this vital life skill. Many factors are to blame, including environmental ones and the seismic shift in how we live our daily lives. 

Why is this important? Because the way we breathe has a direct impact on the way we feel. Every breath can have a positive effect on the physical body and improve our mental wellbeing. 

Are you breathing the right way?

Breathing woman eating breakfast

As you are reading this, bring your awareness to how your body moves on your next breath. Is your belly rising fully on the inhalation, or is the upper chest doing the majority of the work? Are the shoulders and upper rib cage lifting upwards as you take a breath in? Does each breath enter and leave the body in joyous flow, or is there a more staccato rhythm to it? 

A healthy diaphragmatic breath, where the belly rises fully as we breathe in, is the foundation of a healthy breath. This downward movement of the diaphragm helps massage the lower abdominal organs, namely the stomach, colon and intestines, and improves digestion.

Breathing woman closing eyes

Simply taking 10 deep, slow, full diaphragmatic breaths will help to stimulate the vagus nerve – the body's longest nerve, travelling from the brain to the stomach and beyond. Its main job is to track the way we breathe, sending instant reports back to the heart and brain. Breathing slowly reduces the demand for oxygen, slows our heart rate, and the brain will receive a message that we can relax. This is the parasympathetic nervous system in action. Full, slow breaths equal a calm and present mind. 

Many of us tend to over-breathe, employing our neck, back and shoulder muscles. This creates an upper-chest breath which sends the brain into alert mode and allows feelings of stress and anxiety to creep in and trigger a sympathetic nervous state.

How do we go about changing our breathing patterns?

Breathing couple

Fortunately, we can change the way we breathe. We can practise breath work to help maintain a balanced nervous system and have a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. 

With more scientific research proving the benefits of a breathing practice, and a boom in the popularity of breath-work practices, including transformational breath, yogic breathing and conscious connected breath work, we are now able to learn a variety of techniques to help us master our breath, manage our emotions and live a more vital life. The key to living and breathing well is right under your nose.

Aimee Hartley is the author of Breathe Well (£12.99, Kyle Books) and founder of The Breathing Room and School Breathe Programme. Find out more by visiting her website.

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