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Breathing exercises to help reduce stress and improve immune system

By Dr Saima Niaz, Locum Consultant Psychiatrist, North London Partners Specialist Perinatal Mental Health Service.

The absolute upheaval in our lives brought about by the coronavirus pandemic — the cocktail of fear, lockdown and loneliness — has had various detrimental psychological — and physical effects. But simple breathing exercises can be of some relief in these testing times.

People have experienced various degrees of stress, anxiety, muscular tension, fear, frustration and anger over the course of the pandemic. There is ample scientific evidence that breathing exercises are a powerful tool to relieve stress, aid relaxation and facilitate meditation.

Its many and varied benefits include: strengthening the lungs; opening up the smaller airways; helping to distract from negative thoughts; relieving tension and reducing worries; and improving concentration.

Many people are not aware that they don’t use the full extent of their lungs while breathing. Over the years people develop shallower and less healthy breathing patterns and this becomes a habit. It is important to know that the largest part of the lungs is located at the back, not the front.

Lying on your backs compresses the smaller airways and blocks them, which is not a healthy position for extended periods of time, especially for those with lung problems. Some people have spent more time in slouching or lying in bed while watching TV, using mobiles or tablet, or reading a book especially during lockdown.

There are two kinds of muscles that help with breathing: inspiratory muscles, which help to inhale air and expiratory muscles, which help to exhale air. The following breathing exercise will help to strengthen the inspiratory muscles which, in turn, helps to reduce the lungs’ demand for oxygen.

These breathing exercises should never be done immediately after a meal. Try to minimise distractions before you start them and put your phone on silent. The first breathing exercise is called Boxed Breathing. This exercise is used by armies of various countries. It helps to increase mental clarity and alertness, calm the nerves and improve focus on a task while working in a stressful environment. This exercise can be done anywhere in a sitting, standing or lying position.

Step 1: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of four in your head. 

Step 2: Hold your lungs full for the count of four. (Holding your breath does not mean that you are depriving your body of oxygen. It means that you are trying to expand and open the small airways in the lungs)

Step 3: Exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth to the count of four in your head. 

Step 4: Hold your lungs empty to the count of 4. Repeat steps 1 to 4 three times or do the exercise for five minutes.

The second breathing exercise is called Diaphragmatic Breathing (also known as Deep Muscle Breathing or Belly Breathing). This method involves contracting (tightening) the diaphragm which is a muscle located at the base of the lungs between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. During inhalation, the diaphragm is pushed down to create more space for the lungs to expand into the chest cavity.

This exercise improves lung capacity, reduces the lungs’ demand for oxygen and helps to reduce the production of stress hormones. It is used by professional singers, artists, speakers, teachers and athletes to improve vocal stability and slow down the heart rate.

Step 1 Inhale: Place one hand on the chest and the other hand on the belly, just below the rib cage. Breathe in slowly through the nose with your mouth closed, letting the air in towards the belly. Focus on feeling an expansion of the belly. The hand on the chest and your shoulders should not move but the hand on the belly should rise with the expansion as the air goes in.

Step 2 Exhale: Breath out through the mouth, tighten your muscles (so the belly moves in) to force the air out.

Diaphragmatic breathing helps expands the lungs and increases efficiency in oxygen absorption and supply. It strengthens the muscles of the chest, improves digestion and quality of sleep, and strengthens the immune system by reducing stress.

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