Dr Michael Mosley: How deep breathing can soothe anxiety, help you sleep and more
Deep breathing isn’t just for yogis. Evidence suggests it can soothe anxiety, help you sleep and even ease your pain.
My new podcast series, Just One Thing, has proven to be an unexpected hit, with millions of downloads. If you haven’t heard it, the idea is very simple. In each episode (which lasts just 15 minutes) I explore one thing you can try that could make a big difference to your life. The list of subjects I’ve covered so far includes things like cold showers, early morning walks and eating fermented foods.
One of the things that has made a big difference to my life, and which is very simple to do, is to practise a bit of deep breathing. When I feel stressed or when I’m awake in the middle of the night and struggling to go back to sleep, which is quite common, I do a breathing exercise called 4-2-4.
I breathe in for a count of four, hold it for two, then breathe out to a count of four.
According to Ian Robertson, a psychology professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who features in that podcast, deep breathing “is the most precise pharmaceutical you could ever give yourself, side effect free.” He also pointed out to me that it’s very discreet. “You can do it in a meeting and nobody need know you’re doing it.”
Deep breathing switches on your parasympathetic nervous system, which acts like a brake, calming your body down. Long, deep breaths will slow your heart and also reduce your blood pressure. That way it reduces anxiety.
Deep breathing can also be an effective way of dealing with pain. Chronic pain is closely linked to stress and learning how to do ‘controlled breathing’ is an important part of treatment for managing both.
That’s partly because pain and stress have a similar effect on the body. They increase your heart rate and blood pressure, make breathing faster and shallower, and cause muscles to tighten up. If you live in a state of chronic stress or pain, your nervous system will stay on permanent high alert, with your muscles in a constant state of tension.
And it’s not just your body. Stress and pain make your levels of stress hormones surge, which in turn will keep your brain in a state of constant arousal. You’ll be more sensitive to pain signals and much more aware of them. One way to help break this vicious circle is to practise deep-breathing exercises.
As well as 4-2-4 you might want to try 3-4-5 breathing. In this case you inhale slowly through your nose to a count of three, then hold for four, before exhaling for five. You can do this any time you feel stressed or in pain. Repeat the breathing cycle 10 times and you should feel yourself relaxing.
So next time you’re feeling under pressure, remember you have the power to change your brain chemistry with a few deep breaths, whenever and wherever you like.
- This article first appeared in issue 370 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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