It’s literally the most boring thing you do every day. And thank goodness — if breathing weren’t completely rote, we’d all be dead.
But if you’re like me, your inhales and exhales seem to be inexplicably linked with your state of mind. When I’m stressed, I steal antsy, shallow sips of air and puff them out quickly. When I’m relaxed, on the other hand, I breathe in gently and deeply, before letting go of the air slowly.
Studies suggest that I’m not the only one who’s noticed a link between their emotional state and their breathing.
While rapid breathing can often be a symptom of stress or anxiety, research shows that taking control of our breathing can also influence how we feel. Consciously taking deep, slow breaths, for example, may calm us down by convincing our minds that we’re already in a state of relaxation, Dr. Martin Paulus, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego professor, writes in a 2013 manuscript in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Unfortunately, many of us are used to breathing in a way that tends to be bad for us.
“For many of us, deep breathing seems unnatural. There are several reasons for this. For one, body image has a negative impact on respiration in our culture. A flat stomach is considered attractive, so women (and men) tend to hold in their stomach muscles. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow ‘chest breathing’ seem normal,” write the folks at the Harvard Medical School in a recent blog post. These quick inhalations and exhalations can actually make us feel more tense.
But there are plenty of ways to change this pattern — and plenty of research that supports doing so too.
A 2012 randomised controlled study of 46 male and female musicians who were briefly trained in deep breathing and biofeedback suggested that a single 30-minute session of slow breathing (with or without the biofeedback component) helped reduce symptoms of anxiety before a performance, particularly in musicians who said they tended to get very anxious.
The benefits may extend to people with more severe anxiety as well. The authors of a small 2014 study of male veterans with PTSD found that those who did three hours each day of a breathing-based meditation program for a week experienced a decrease in PTSD symptoms and anxiety.
If you’ve never tried deep breathing before, Harvard has some tips for giving it a shot. First, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Then, inhale slowly through your nose, letting your chest and lower stomach expand. Finally, exhale slowly through your mouth or nose. It also can be helpful to count while you’re breathing as a way of helping to even out your inhales and exhales.
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