Why breathing is the most effective positive thinking technique
When you’re in the midst of a stressful or anxious episode, being told to “just breathe” can feel one step short of a condescending pat on the head. “Yes, thank you,” you might snap back. “If getting rid of my anxiety were that simple, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?”
If you’re an entrepreneur or self-employed, you’re likely to be very familiar with stress. Entrepreneurs have been found to be significantly more likely to have had a mental health condition (49% vs 32% in a comparison group), while Epson research reveals that 25% of freelancers have experienced frequent bouts of depression, with at least one in six experiencing common mental health problems.
Achieving a positive mindset can then become especially difficult — something known to boost motivation, productivity, and creativity, which are things directly responsible for your bills being paid. Turns out that breathing, however, can actually help.
When we are stressed, anxious, or experiencing other types of distress, our breathing is impacted, becoming more shallow and erratic. But this can also work the other way around, explains Clinical Psychologist Kaitlyn Harrington, who specialises in personality disorders and trauma.
“If we do not need to be in fight-or-flight mode, so in stressful situations that are not life-threatening, we can reverse this process in effect by slowing our breath”
“Breathing techniques are a ‘bottom-up’ strategy, which means that you are using the body to calm the mind, rather than the mind to calm the body, for example, when people try to ‘think’ their way out of their distress,” she says. “This is particularly useful when people are distressed, highly anxious, or panicking, and are unable to think logically and reasonably in the moment.”
Breathing techniques are widely accepted to have positive effects on mental health. Diaphragmatic breathing, or ‘deep breathing’, is a technique that involves breathing deeply and expanding the lungs into the diaphragm rather than using the abdomen or ribcage alone. It has been found to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress in a variety of studies.
Diaphragmatic breathing contributes to physiologic responses in the body, including a decreased heart rate and blood pressure. This ‘slow breathing’ resets the autonomic nervous system, which deals with physiological arousal and stress. It is made up of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (activated in response to stress, triggering the fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (reduces arousal, known as the ‘rest and digest’ system).
“If we do not need to be in fight-or-flight mode, so in stressful situations that are not life-threatening, we can reverse this process in effect by slowing our breath, thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system,” explains Kaitlyn.
“When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your breathing and heart rate slows, and many of the physiological symptoms of fight-or-flight are reversed, leading you to feel calmer and more relaxed.”
“Everyone can benefit from breathing exercises. They can help to anchor us into the present moment, calming our stress levels and allowing us the space to fully process our emotions”
Dr Elena Touroni, Consultant Psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, recommends breathing techniques in clinical situations where a person is experiencing very intense emotions. “Breathing techniques can offer a way to pause and ground ourselves into the present moment, so that we can better connect with our thoughts and feelings,” she explains.
This sounds a lot like mindfulness, of which breathwork is a core component. Mindfulness aims to shift focus from erratic or negative thoughts to the present moment, and to create distance from those thoughts. It is often practiced through meditation, now a tenet of mainstream wellness culture thanks to mindfulness app Headspace, which has raised $168.2M to date.
“The breath is often used as an anchor that we can easily turn attention to, because we’re either breathing in or breathing out,” explains Daniel Avital, a facilitator of mindfulness-based relapse prevention at private clinic The Practice. “It’s stable, consistent, and has associated physical sensations like the chest rising and falling, and the abdomen rising and falling.
“Mindfulness and breathing exercises help you focus your attention more clearly and in that focus, they change your relationship with thoughts — that thoughts are just another aspect of our experience, and that they are not necessarily true, and are something we can step back from.”
Much research has been done into the benefits of mindfulness over the last 20 years, seeing the practice gradually accepted by conventional medicine. The NHS now has a dedicated page to mindfulness, noting its link to mental wellbeing, while many high-profile companies, including Google and Intel, offer mindfulness and meditation courses for their employees.
“Everyone can benefit from breathing exercises,” says Dr Elena. “When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can be easy to act in a reactive and impulsive way which is not necessarily going to serve us in the long term. Breathing exercises can help to anchor us into the present moment, calming our stress levels and allowing us the space to fully process our emotions.”
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