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Keep calm… and carry on breathing: The simple exercises that can alleviate pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression

First appeared in the Mail on Sunday

  • Breathing is so ordinary – but many of us forgot how to breathe correctly
  • But this can have huge implications on our overall health and happiness
  • Mindfulness can beat depression, enhance happiness and creativity
  • And correct breathing techniques are the cornerstone of mindfulness

 

Breathing is so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. But many of us have forgotten how to breathe correctly.

And this has huge implications for overall health and happiness.

For thousands of years, people have used simple breathing exercises that, ultimately, can have profound effects on the mind and body: they can relieve chronic pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression.

Some even claim these practices lead to spiritual enlightenment.

But I am as spiritual as a housebrick. Instead, I use breathing exercises to stay positive, focused and appreciative in a crazy world (and especially when I’m stressed out by a looming deadline).

DON’T BREATHE ‘BADLY’

I first discovered the art of breathing as part of my research into mindfulness meditation, about which I have written three books, including the international bestseller Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness – the modern take on the ancient practice of meditation – has been clinically proven to beat depression and enhance happiness, clarity of thought and even decision-making and creativity. And correct breathing is its cornerstone.

My latest book, The Art Of Breathing, gathers a range of mindful breathing techniques in one little volume that will allow anyone to incorporate some mindfulness into their life.

These techniques work because of the way your breath reflects and amplifies emotions. Incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.

It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress.

Breathing then becomes a little faster and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed…

It is a vicious circle.

But there is an alternative….

A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm. Soothing hormones flow, calming negative thoughts so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply.

You begin to relax. To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this simple exercise:

  • Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Close your eyes.
  • Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in, and out.
  • Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Relax into the breath’s fluidity.
  • Within a few breaths your heart will begin to slow and beat more effectively. Your breath will start to become deeper and more rhythmic. You will begin to relax and think more clearly.

EASE ACHES AND PAINS

Most of us breathe incorrectly, especially when we’re sitting slumped at desks for far too long each day. Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work.

But the secondary muscles are designed to shoulder only 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed. If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

You can counteract such tension by using a simple breath-based meditation. All you need is a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

HERE’S HOW…

Sit erect in a straight-backed chair with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.

  • Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. Stay in touch with the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath.
  • When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the sensations of breathing.
  • Shepherding your awareness back to the breath is central to mindfulness.
  • After a few minutes, or longer if you can manage, open your eyes and soak up your surroundings.

After this, you’ll probably be feeling less tense. Maybe any aches and pains you have will be less bothersome. Hopefully, you’ll have gained a bit of clarity and started to realise that your breath is one of your greatest assets.

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published by HQ, rrp £7.99.

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