7 Breathing Techniques to Trigger Your Automated Relaxation Response

Blog Mind 7 Breathing Techniques to Trigger Your Automated Relaxation Response

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6.6.2024 0 comments

How often do you get to the end of the day (or even the middle of the day?) and just feel like you need to relax before your mind or body breaks?

Sadly, this is an all-too-common occurrence in our busy, stress-filled lives.

We spend our days running around non-stop, and by the time we’re done work, we’re on the verge of cracking—and there’s still so much more to do.

But there’s good news: your body has its own built-in relaxation mechanism. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is “a network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger.” [1] It also runs your digestive system and other “life-sustaining processes”, but it can only do so when your body is relaxed.

It’s called your “rest and digest” system, or “feed and breed” system, because your digestive and reproductive systems are activated by the parasympathetic nervous system.

During periods of extreme stress, your parasympathetic nervous system takes a back seat to your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your “fight or flight” reactions [2].

The trick, though, is that during those stressful times, you can actually decrease your sympathetic nervous system activity and increase activity in your parasympathetic nervous system.

How, you ask?

Simple: by breathing.

Yes, it really is that easy!

Research [3] has shown that certain types of long, deep breathing can trigger the relaxation and stress-decreasing benefits of an active parasympathetic nervous system.

Below are seven breathing patterns you can try out next time you’re feeling overly stressed and in need of relaxation.

7 Breathing Techniques to Trigger Relaxation and Calm

Technique #1: Long Breaths

This is the most basic breathing pattern: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 1-2 seconds, then exhale for 4 seconds.

Repeat that a few times, then extend both the inhalation and exhalation. Aim for a count of 6, then 8. If you can, work your way up to 10 seconds in and 10 seconds out. The longer, slower inhalation and exhalation will do wonders to slow your body down, triggering your parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing your body’s stress response.

Technique #2: Long Exhale

Try this breathing pattern: take a deep breath and fill your lungs by inhaling for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 1-2 seconds, then exhale for 8 to 12 seconds.

The longer, slower exhalation will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, but the quicker inhalations will still ensure you get all the oxygen your body needs.

Technique #3: 4-7-8

This is a very interesting breathing technique common to Yoga. It’s called “pranayama”, and it’s a form of mindful, controlled breathing that is highly effective at reducing stress and increasing relaxation.

To do this, sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and relax your body. Inhale for a count of four, then hold your breath for seven seconds. Once you count to seven, let out your breath slowly over a count of eight seconds. Make a conscious effort to whoosh your breath through your lips.

Repeat this four to eight times in all. You’ll feel exponentially more relaxed once you get back to work or move on with your day.

Technique #4: Box Breathing

Box breathing is another timed, controlled breathing technique that’s easy to master, but is incredibly effective for triggering your parasympathetic nervous system response.

It’s basically just four four-counts:

  • Inhale for four seconds

  • Hold your breath for four seconds

  • Exhale for four seconds

  • Hold for four seconds

Technique #5: Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing relaxes your body by forcing you to slow down your breathing. When you breathe more slowly, it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and tells your body that you are safe and can be calm.

It’s also an incredibly easy breathing technique that takes virtually zero effort to master—but it works wonders!

The breathing technique is simple:

  • Sit somewhere comfortable, with your body relaxed and face calm.

  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nostrils. Breathe in for a count of four, consciously filling your diaphragm and letting your stomach expand.

  • Hold your breath for a 1-count before exhaling.

  • As you exhale, blow air through your pursed lips for another count of four.

  • Repeat the inhale and exhale, slowing down your exhalations even more until you can breathe out slowly for a count of six.

Do this a few times, and you’ll walk away feeling so much calmer and more centered.

Technique #6: Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a breathing technique derived from ancient Indian Yoga practices. Called “Nadi Shodhana Pranayama” in Sanskrit, it’s been utilized for thousands of years to master breath, lower heart rate, improve cardiovascular function, and calm your mind.

(Warning: It’s recommended that you practice on an empty stomach first. Some people find the breathing technique causes them to feel congested or nauseous initially.)

For this breathing technique:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, in a chair, on a couch, or on the floor with your legs crossed.

  • Place your right thumb on your right nostril, and inhale through your left nostril.

  • Place your right index finger on your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril.

  • Inhale through your right nostril, then close it and exhale through your left nostril.

  • Alternate this inhale and exhale through your nostrils for up to 5 minutes.

It may feel strange at first, but once you master this breathing technique, you’ll find it can do amazing things to calm your mind and relax your body.

Technique #7: Forest Breathing

Forest breathing combines deep, controlled breathing with the fresh air and beautiful surroundings of forests.

In Japan, the practice of “forest bathing”, called “shinrin-yoku” [4] has been linked to a wide range of health benefits, from greater mental calm to improved cardiovascular health and enhanced cognition.

Forest bathing differs from hiking in that the focus isn’t on the exercise, but in the relaxation, mindfulness, and connecting with nature. You can hike to get out into the middle of the forest, but once you’re alone in the quiet of the forest, that’s when it’s time to practice the breathing and mindfulness technique below:

  • Pick a tree and focus on it. Watch its movement, listen to any sound it makes, and pay attention to its color, shape, and scent.

  • While you’re studying the tree, practice equal breathing (aka “Sama Vritti”). Focus on making your inhalations and exhalations the same length. Typically between 3 and 5 counts will work well.

  • Continue to practice equal breathing as you shift your attention to other trees and objects around you. Practice awareness and mindfulness of your surroundings. “Bathe” in the beauty of the forest and connect with nature through your calm, your silence, and your deep, equal breathing.

Even just an hour a week spent in nature “forest bathing” and breathing will be amazing for your mental and physical health.

Wrapping Up:

Anytime you’re feeling the pressure or stress of a busy day, take a few minutes to sit somewhere quiet and just breathe. Or get away from your busy life and go somewhere quiet, calm, and preferably out in green spaces where you can connect with nature and focus on your breathing.

The simple act of taking long, slow, deep breaths is all it takes to get your parasympathetic nervous system working to relax your body and combat stress. Even just 10 to 15 minutes of deep, controlled breathing will be a game-changer for your physical and mental health.

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[1] my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23266-parasympathetic-nervous-system-psns

[2] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1959222/

[3] https://www.webmd.com/balance/what-to-know-4-7-8-breathing

[4] www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/forest-bathing-nature-walk-health


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