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We take 20,000 breaths a day, including while we are asleep.
How many of those are you conscious of? We don’t need to be conscious of each of those breaths.
This is the wonder of the body. It breathes and digests for us and keeps the heart beating while we attend to our lives.
So what is mindful breathing? And how can it help?
We’ll answer all that and take a look at some health benefits of mindful breathing. We’ll also cover a few helpful exercises to help you foster a sense of inner peace.
What is mindful breathing?
“Breathe!” they say. “Take a deep breath, and you’ll be fine.”
We all know the simple act of breathing can have a positive effect on us; it’s clear from the language we use. Most of the time, we are breathing shallow breaths through our nose or mouth.
This is normal breathing.
Mindful breathing is paying attention to the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the body. This means noticing the breath, how and where you feel it in the body without trying to change it.
Mindful breathing is a deep breathing exercise. Deep breathing uses big breaths and controls the length. This is to achieve a desired outcome, like falling asleep or reaching a state of relaxation while in meditation or hypnosis.
Mindful breathing teaches core mindfulness. Using meditation techniques like mindful breathing can result in a number of proven health benefits.
Mindful breathing benefits
Mindfulness meditation practice offers multiple benefits to those who practice it, such as:
- Pain relief
- Increased compassion and more positive emotions
- Improved cognitive functions like memory, attention, and focus
- Improved sleep
- Improved brain health
You can follow this breathing practice virtually anywhere. Even if you just need to take a minute to practice breath meditation at your desk, you can.
Why does mindful breathing work?
When we place our attention on our breath, our focus detracts from areas of pain. We detach from worrisome stories we tell ourselves that we associate with that pain.
We become present and not thinking about the future or the past. We learn how to observe the pain as a result of training ourselves to pay attention.
This is mindfulness — to see and not react, to notice the qualities. And to do so as an observer.
Often, detaching from the emotion of pain reduces the sensation of discomfort.
Some studies have proven the effectiveness of mindful breathing on pain relief. In 2016, Zeidan and Vago found mindful breathing to reduce self-reported pain scores. This may help people to rely less on medication.
Evidence shows increased time spent practicing mindful breathing results in reduced stress.
Mindful breathing and stress
Stress is usually the result of negative thoughts that defy our ability to cope with a situation. Mindful breathing teaches us to become aware of thoughts that are coming in and out of our attention.
With this awareness, we observe the transient nature of thoughts. We then develop the ability to choose to pay attention to them or not. During mindful breathing, we also spend time in ‘the gap’ — the point between thoughts.
This can be a very calming and peaceful feeling. The immediate effect is relaxation of the body. And as the body and mind are connected, when we relax the body, the mind follows.
Again, by placing awareness on the breath, we train ourselves to maintain focus on this area. Training our attention while breathing has outcomes that pervade all parts of life.
We become more attuned to realizing when we have become distracted by thoughts. With this new awareness, we can then choose what to do with our thoughts. We can bring our attention back to the present moment and refocus on something else, such as what is in front of us.
Or we can re-frame that thought in a kind and helpful way. Ask yourself, is this kind? Is this helpful?
When we become present, we realize that anxious thoughts are usually about the past or future. We see that things aren't usually an issue right now. Our thinking becomes more rational.
Negativity bias and chemical systems
We have a negativity bias of three negative thoughts to one positive thought. This is thanks to our survival brain that we have evolved with.
The role of this part of the brain is to perceive threats (real or not). Although it protects us, we can get caught up in negative thinking about our lives, the world, or ourselves. When this happens, our body switches to survival mode.
This activates our sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline and cortisol are released. We are ready for fight or flight.
This can be so subtle that we don’t notice the physiological changes. These could be an increased heart rate, faster breathing, or sweaty palms. When the stressful thought or event passes, the cortisol decreases. Balance returns to the body.
Over time, the body requires extra cortisol to deal with these stressors, and a build-up of cortisol can shrink the brain by killing brain cells. Regular mindful breathing reduces cortisol by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This tells the body that everything is okay.
We produce noradrenaline every time we breathe in, which inhibits focus.
Yet, when we practice mindful breathing, we can optimize our attention level. Being mindful of our attention results in more synchronized breathing. With more synchronized activity between the brain and breathing, brain health improves.
Types of meditation breathing techniques
Counting our breathing is one form of mindful breathing. Counting our breaths increases activity in the hippocampus, the area of our brain responsible for memory.
Counting breaths also improves connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The result? Improved emotional regulation.
By developing the skill of mindful breathing, we create new neural pathways that are more compassionate. This includes compassion towards ourselves and others.
Just as sitting and breathing mindfully is a rest for the body, it is also a rest for the mind. Mindful breathing causes our breath to slow down.
When this happens, our brain waves change. In a normal state of business, we are in Beta brainwaves. Putting our attention on the breath into the present moment puts us into Alpha brainwaves. This is a restful state.
Alpha waves promote calmness, alertness, and integration of the mind and body. A study by Dr. Hardt found Alpha brainwaves to reduce anxiety and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.
Mindful breathing meditation: how to do it
The fantastic news is that mindful breathing is free, easy, and accessible to everyone. You can practice it almost anywhere.
All you need is a spare 10–15 minutes where you won’t be interrupted. You could use your lunch break in the park or on the train during your commute — headphones are helpful.
The best time of the day to practice mindful breathing is in the morning and before you have consumed caffeine. After waking, drink a glass of water and make yourself comfortable.
The best position is sitting with your back straight — either on a chair or sitting up in bed — or laying down. Remember, the aim of mindful breathing is to notice when you have been distracted. Bring your attention back to your breath, without judgment, and with a smile.
A common misconception is that being distracted means you are doing it “wrong.” Or that your mind is too busy for you to be successful. Celebrate each time you catch your mind wandering. It won’t always be the same duration between distractions.
Sometimes our attention will spend longer on certain thoughts than others, and that’s okay.
Mindfulness breathing exercises
Ensure you are sitting in a comfortable position and set a timer.
Close your eyes if that is comfortable for you. You may prefer to keep your eyes open and focus on a point in the room (recommended for PTSD sufferers).
Start by bringing your attention to the sensation of the support beneath you. Notice the temperature of the room. Notice any sounds around you, near or further away. Then bring your attention inward to the sensation of your breath.
At this point, you may wish to place your attention on one of the following:
- Counting your breaths. Count one for each inhale and exhale together until you reach ten. Start again from one if you become distracted.
- Focusing on the sensation. Think about the rising and falling of your chest or belly — wherever you feel your breath. This is known as belly breathing.
- Focusing on the point at which the breath changes. Concentrate on when your breath changes from inhalation to exhalation.
- Practicing alternate nostril breathing. Block your left nostril and focus on breathing only through the right nostril. Then try the other side.
- Noticing the quality of the breath. With curiosity, observe the difference in each breath. Is it longer than the last? Shorter? Deeper? Shallower?
If you have a cold, you can still practice mindful breathing and breathe with your mouth.
Whenever possible, breathe through your nose. When the timer sounds, wiggle your fingers and toes. Then gently open your eyes. You should feel refreshed and renewed.
Mindful breathing exercises takes practice
It’s going to take some time to really get the hang of this breathing technique. For some, it doesn’t come naturally.
Conscious breathing is not something we do constantly, and our brain likes to throw a lot of distractions at us when practicing mindfulness. Negative emotions, stressful thoughts, and items on your to-do list may enter your mind.
That’s okay. It’s all part of the learning process.
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Jenna is an expert in mindfulness and specializes in Applied Positive Psychology within her coaching approach. She bridges the gap between spirituality and science. This helps her clients learn how to recognize their negative thoughts and behaviors and develop a more authentic way of relating to the world in order to live intentionally, in a way that's true to them. Jenna conducted Master's thesis research on the positive effects of the sea on well-being.
Originally from Cornwall, UK Jenna grew up surrounded by the wild ocean and epic coastlines. She is always working on deepening self-awareness via daily meditation and making time to play!