The mental (and physical) benefits of deep breathing

You have certainly heard that you need to take a deep breath to calm yourself, or that your shallow breathing is causing you stress and destroying your body. What if I told you it was true?

Shallow breathing is extremely damaging not only to the emotional but also to the body. This is because oxygenation is essential for the organism to continue functioning healthily: without it, the heart could even pump blood, but this would be inefficient in keeping the body functioning, since the cells need oxygen to continue working.

You can already understand that breathing is very important, right? If you still need more reasons to convince yourself that deep breathing is one of the best things you can do for yourself, keep reading and you will see the countless benefits that this practice can bring!


Benefits of deep breathing

It doesn’t take long from the moment you start to breathe well to see the results of the practice: some are instantaneous, others take a few days. Either way, there will be no shortage of reasons to focus more on your breathing. Some of these benefits are:

Anxiety and stress relief

Have you noticed how many relaxation techniques are focused on breathing? Well, it’s not a joke: deep breathing does help you relax, both emotionally and physically.

Why does it happen? Well, it’s all related to the autonomic nervous system – part of our nervous system responsible for involuntary functions and reactions, such as breathing, heartbeat and a “fight or flight” reaction.

It is precisely in the fight or flight reaction that the problem lives: when the body feels threatened, breathing becomes faster and shallow, as it needs to capture the maximum oxygen from the environment in order to reserve energy for the fight or to give the out running. We normally breathe between 17 and 18 times a minute. In times of stress, this number rises to 30 times.

The problem is that this reaction occurs even when there is no risk of real life: before a test or job presentation, during a family fight, among others. As it is neither possible to fight nor to escape from these situations, the body is breathing in this way automatically and there is not much we can do (apart from taking a deep breath).

In addition, we often get used to breathing like this, superficially. We do it unconsciously and the body gets confused, interpreting this as a sign that we are in danger. In this way, he ends up worsening feelings such as anxiety and stress, since he automatically begins to prepare to fight.

If shallow breathing activates the body’s alertness, the opposite is also true: deep breathing causes the body’s relaxation mechanism to work.

As we breathe deeply, the body understands that there is no danger and can relax, releasing soothing substances in the brain and body. The muscles become less tense, the heartbeat slows down and we are invaded by an internal feeling of peace.

GABA, the natural tranquilizer

Much of this calming effect on breathing is due to a neurotransmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. The fact that it is inhibitory means that it helps to inhibit unnecessary brain activity, which would only cause more stress.

In this way, it is the main natural tranquilizer and it is precisely in it that the anti-anxiety drugs act. Therefore, it is not uncommon to hear that breathing is the best anxiolytic , since it helps the release of this neurotransmitter in the brain.

Improved bowel function and digestion

Many people suffer from a trapped intestine due to shallow breathing and don’t even know it! Well, breathing deeply can be the solution to the problem.

Constipation occurs when the intestines are unable to move their contents to their final destination by means of peristaltic movements – involuntary contractions that the organs make so that nothing is stopped in the body.

When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm moves, a muscular layer that separates the chest from the abdomen. This movement makes a kind of “massage” in the intestines, which helps the peristaltic movements and, consequently, improves digestion.

This effect can already be felt in the first few hours of breathing deeply. If you have trouble going to the bathroom, try this technique!

Improvement of cellular metabolism

Oxygen is the cell’s food, the functional unit of the human body. Therefore, the lack of food is a risk factor for them to define and die early.

Breathing deeply causes the blood to transport more oxygen to the tissues and cells, improving their useful life.

Improved lung capacity

Like anything that is not used, the lung also atrophies when we spend a lot of time breathing shallowly. It becomes less elastic and withstands a smaller volume of air, even though there is no disturbing condition (such as pulmonary emphysema ).

Breathing deeply forces the lungs to expand, so that, just like any muscle, it gets stronger and more resistant and can support larger volumes of air.

This can also be beneficial for patients with asthma or bronchitis , who already have limited breathing due to illness. Although there is no evidence that taking a deep breath does away with the problem, the discomfort caused by a lack of oxygen can improve considerably.

Less stressed heart and balanced blood pressure

The heart’s function is to pump oxygenated blood to the rest of the body, so that it is fully supplied with this substance. However, when blood is poorly oxygenated, the heart needs to send larger amounts of blood to ensure that cells receive adequate oxygen requirements for survival.

Thus, it is not uncommon for people who breathe very shallow to have a more stressed heart as well. Just breathing more deeply is already a good way to combat this unnecessary stress, in addition to lowering blood pressure due to the lower volume of blood in the vessels.

Finally, deep breathing relaxes the muscles – the heart is composed of nothing less than a striated cardiac muscle -, making the organ more relaxed to perform its function.

Elimination of free radicals, younger and healthier skin

Every woman has heard of the dreaded free radicals: unstable and reactive substances that bind to healthy cells in our body and damage the cell membrane. This is detrimental to both our health and aesthetics, since free radicals greatly accelerate the skin’s aging process.

Although oxygen is primarily responsible for this situation, it can also fix it: adequate amounts of oxygen in the bloodstream help stabilize free radicals, making their effects less harmful.

In this way, you can guarantee a young and healthy skin for longer! The same is true for internal organs. So, as a way to prevent premature aging, always bet on breathing.

Body weight control

According to the International Journal of Yoga , certain breathing techniques help burn more calories, helping to maintain body weight. In addition, there are those who argue that oxygen helps in the metabolism of food, preventing it from being transformed into fat.

Pulse control

Because of the feeling of calm and relaxation that deep breathing provides, we are able to think better before acting. So, instead of making impulsive decisions in times of anger or stress, we allow ourselves to reflect.

Preservation of cognitive functions

Did you know that one of the organs that needs oxygen most is the brain? When it is well oxygenated, it can function fully. The drop in brain oxygen affects functions such as attention and ability to concentrate. When suffering from an absolute lack of oxygen, it can be damaged very quickly, causing changes in cognitive processes such as thinking, reasoning, memory, speech and understanding, among others.

Better sleep quality

Those who do not breathe well also do not sleep well. The lack of oxygen during sleep – known as night apnea – causes the brain to wake up several times during the night. This can even prevent him from falling into the deep, restful sleep necessary for our rest.

Performing breathing exercises at bedtime also helps you fall asleep. Remember that breathing releases soothing substances in the brain and body? Well, all of this helps to prepare our body for rest. Nothing better than going to sleep already relaxed, isn’t it?

We breathe wrong

Most people breathe wrong. You can see: there are few people who breathe deeply in their daily lives. Even people connected to relaxation practices spend most of the day breathing shallowly. This leads us to think that we breathe wrong by nature, but not quite: the baby is born breathing correctly.

Have you seen how the baby’s tummy inflates every time he inhales and decreases every time he throws the air out? This is the correct way to breathe: using the full capacity of the lung, moving the diaphragm. The problem is that, as we grow up, we forget how to breathe and start using only the upper part of the lung, using only 30% of the volumetric capacity and ignoring its full capacity.

Why does this happen? There are several reasons:

Anxiety and stressful situations

We go through stressful situations all our life. As we saw earlier, stress triggers the fight or flight response, which makes breathing shallow.

The problem is that this reaction is much more present in our lives than in that of our cave ancestors: they did not have to deal with the stresses of work, family, studies, traffic, among others. They only faced this reaction when they effectively had to fight or flee, either during the hunt for food or when they needed to compete for a partner.

We are enveloped in an increasingly stressful world that teases our autonomic nervous system all the time. Due to this frequency, we stop breathing deeply and get used to the short, shallow breathing of these moments.

Beauty standards and social ties

In a society in which the ideal of beauty is a “straight” belly without curves, it is natural for people to do everything to keep their belly muscles rigid, giving the impression of thinness.

This ends up being just as damaging to health as the mirabolating diets dangerously advertised in the media, as it prevents the movement of the diaphragm and the full expansion of the lung.

The person then starts to breathe only with the upper part of the lung to maintain a standard of beauty that is often unattainable, not because it is impossible, but because each body has a different metabolism that needs to be respected.

Diaphragmatic breathing: correct breathing

As stated earlier, we breathe wrong most of the time. But if breathing is simply pulling in the air with your nose, what are we doing wrong, anyway?

The answer lies in the misuse of the diaphragm: the main muscle responsible for breathing. It lies more or less in the middle of our trunk and divides that part of the body into the chest and abdomen. When we inhale, it goes down, “pulling” the lung with it. When we breathe out, this muscle comes back up, pushing the air out.

This movement creates positive and negative pressures on both parts of the body, helping to expand the lung. It is this expansion that makes us able to suck in the air more effectively. In fact, try to expand your abdomen without pulling any more air in: you will feel the need to breathe much faster than just holding your breath.

This is because the lung needs air to expand and, when trying to expand the abdomen, the lower parts of the lung suck air from the upper parts, causing shortness of breath.

Correct breathing is the one that guarantees the greatest volume of air by inspiration. Therefore, the use of the diaphragm is essential for it to be performed correctly.

In addition, according to Harvard Health magazine , slowness is the key . Keeping the air in the lungs longer helps the oxygen to reach the cells, without lowering the gas level in the bloodstream. Breathing deeply certainly prevents our breathing from becoming too fast, but it is important to pay attention to the rhythm anyway.

It is estimated that people breathe between 16 and 17 times a minute, which is too fast for this process to be complete. Of course, oxygen reaches the cells, but in less than ideal amounts. Therefore, the goal of exercising deep breathing is to reach 10 breaths per minute, improving the uptake and utilization of oxygen.

How to do diaphragmatic breathing?

To find out if you are already using the diaphragm correctly, just place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen and take a deep breath. If the thoracic part is the one that increases in size, you are doing it wrong.

To fix it, try to breathe trying to inflate the abdominal part of the body. At first, you may experience some difficulty in this, but try to hold your breath like this for at least 10 minutes every day. Gradually, the body gets used to this new way of breathing.

It is worth remembering that, being a muscle, the diaphragm strengthens with the practice of diaphragmatic breathing, helping the body to get used more easily.

Also, always remember that when you are anxious or facing a stressful situation, taking a deep breath helps a lot . A tip, in these cases, is to try to do a rhythmic deep breathing technique, as below:

  1. Inhale deeply by counting to 4;
  2. Retain this air, without forcing it, counting to 5;
  3. Exhale counting to 7;
  4. Start the process over again.

If you prefer, do this exercise lying down with your hands on your chest and abdomen, in order to better understand the flow of air through your body.

This rhythmic breathing helps the body to understand that there is no danger and, consequently, to relax. Repeat this process 15 to 20 times and notice how everything will be more smooth.

It is worth remembering that it is normal if you feel a certain dizziness or see “balls” floating, because the brain is receiving more oxygen than usual and it takes time for it to adapt. However, if you feel very uncomfortable and feel nauseous, it is recommended to stop exercising.

Yoga and Breathing

Known for its unusual postures, yoga is an ancient art that seeks to harmonize body, mind and breath. Breathing exercises in this art are called pranayama , and yogis believe that it is possible to inhale good things and exhale evil.

Therefore, several types of exercises were developed, both respiratory and postural, associated with meditative states. However, to enjoy the benefits of pranayamas , it is not necessary to do yoga: there are several exercises that can be done at home, without any major difficulties. Meet some:

Soothing breathing: adhama pranayama

Perfect for bedtime, this technique is based on the subtle control of the breathing process. Learn it:

  1. Lie on your back and support both hands on your abdomen, to feel and bring awareness to the muscles of the region;
  2. At first, do not change your breathing, just feel how it happens in the abdominal region, inhaling and exhaling through your nose normally. Stay like this for 10 breaths;
  3. After these breaths, you should take control effortlessly: when you empty your lung, contract your belly a little more, exhaling a little more air;
  4. Then, breathe in slowly and slowly, expanding the abdomen in a conscious way;
  5. Keep breathing like this for 20 times. You will feel more relaxed and calm.

Breathing cleansing: kapalabhati

This breathing helps a lot in digestion, as it is focused precisely on the abdominal muscles. It should be done in the morning, on an empty stomach.

  1. In a comfortable place, sit upright, with your legs crossed;
  2. Inhale slowly through the nostril, expanding the abdomen;
  3. When exhaling, contract your abdominal muscles quickly, exhaling the air, as if you were “getting punched” in the region;
  4. Continue inhaling and exhaling like this for 30 breaths;
  5. Stop the exercise and rest for a few minutes;
  6. Repeat this exercise with two more cycles of 30 breaths.


This is not a calming exercise ! People with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure , who have had surgery recently, and pregnant women should not do it.

Square breath: samavritti

Square breathing consists of matching the time of the four breathing processes:

  • Inspiration;
  • Retention of air in the lungs;
  • Expiration;
  • Retention of air outside the lungs.

This technique helps to calm and achieve meditative states. For this:

  1. Sit comfortably with your spine upright;
  2. Watch your breathing happen naturally;
  3. Extend the air inlet and outlet gradually, until you find a deep and pleasant rhythm;
  4. Count the time you use to inhale and then to exhale, making sure it is the same time;
  5. Now, it’s time to add the retentions: as you inhale, hold the air in your lungs for the same time. As you exhale, hold your breath, leaving your lung empty for the same time;
  6. Keep this “square” rhythm 5 times. With experience, gradually increase to 10 times.

Create a healthy breathing routine

Changing the way you breathe does not happen overnight. It takes the body some time to get used to the new movement. However, there are some tips that can help you if you are interested in adopting this new way of breathing for your life:

  • Find a place where you can exercise your deep breathing every day. It is preferable that this place is calm and quiet, in addition to having a supply of quality air – avoid highways and very urban places, prefer parks or areas with a lot of green;
  • Do not try so hard: the goal here is just to relax. Thinking that you are doing everything wrong when it doesn’t happen at first will only make you even more tense, making the difficulty worse;
  • Whenever possible, try to focus on your breathing. At first, it is difficult, as we are used to breathing automatically. However, the more time you use to bring your breath into consciousness, the easier the adaptation process becomes;
  • Some people are connected to routines and rituals and, therefore, seeking to do breathing exercises at the same time and place can help to create the habit more quickly;
  • Participating in yoga, tai chi and meditation groups can be good alternatives to always perform these exercises;
  • Try to practice deep breathing for at least 10 minutes a day.

Did you like to know a little more about the benefits of deep breathing for your mental and physical health ? So take the initiative and start breathing healthily today! It is never too late to start breathing properly.