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Slow breathing: how it works and why it is good for you

Breathing exercises. They can come across as being simply a trend because so many people and articles are recommending them without saying much about the science behind it or scientific findings about the benefits of breathing exercises. In this article, I will give you a brief overview about the science behind it, including benefits and physical mechanisms!

How do breathing exercises affect your body?

Here is a brief explanation about the physical mechanisms behind the benefits.

Breathing techniques designate the conscious regulation of the frequency, deepness, and/or inspiration/expiration ration of respiration [1]. This can look like breathing through the belly, slow and deep breathing, alternating with nostril you breathe in with, holding your breath, etc. [2].

In order to feel the benefits of those breathing exercises, you need to practice slow breathing [3] and the breathing has to happen through the nose [1], specifically through the left nostril or alternating the left and right nostril [3]. A study by De Couck et al. [4] found that it is even more efficient if you exhale longer than you inhale.

Why is it better to breathe through the nose?

Because it is nasal stimulation that has an impact on the autonomic system. The stimulation of the left nostril activates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic system, and thus increases the parasympathetic activity [1]. The parasympathetic response then becomes dominant over the sympathetic response [2].

How does it affect your body?

Well, the vagus nerve sends information about the body to the central nervous system and other brain areas responsible for the regulation of internal body states. This also goes the other way around as your brain, meaning your attention, working memory, and executive monitoring, also influences what goes on in your body [1] In short, the parasympathetic system modulates stress responses and affects a lot of other parts of the brain responsible for physiological and emotional regulation [4].

Some studies found that slow breathing, in those specific cases referred to as Yogic Breathing, influenced neurocognitive abilities, lung function, and biochemical and metabolic activities in the body [5]. However, it was also noted that the most suitable method has to be carefully selected if you have a respiratory illness and you need to be trained and supervised while doing it to avoid any negative consequences [2].

Ok, so now you know how slow breathing affects your body. But what are the benefits that you can actually observe?

We know that slow deep breathing has positive effects on your health, your stress relief, your cardiovascular system and breathing functions and cognition [2]. It also modulates the pain perception and helps in the management of symptoms of some diseases [5]. This is the physiological part.

Now, let's look at the psychological benefits. Here is a non-exclusive list of all the benefits I found:

Aspects that decreased:

  • Stress [2], [5], [6]

  • Anxiety [1], [2], [5], [6]

  • Anger [1]

  • Confusion [1]

  • Fatigue [2]

  • Reaction time when doing a task [5]

Aspects that were increased or improved

  • Adaptive self-care skills [6]

  • Confidence [6]

  • Grounding [6]

  • De-escalation [6]

  • Relaxation [1], [6]

  • Well-being [1]

  • Comfort, ease [1]

  • Positive energy [1]

  • Pleasantness [1]

  • Emotional responses in general [2]

  • Melatonin (the sleep hormone) [2]

  • Recovery from stress [4]

  • Mood [5]

To sum it up, deep breathing has a lot of positive psychological and behavioral effects on top of the physiological ones [1]. It allows us to have a calm and alert state of mind [2].

Are you convinced yet that you need to learn how to do deep and slow breathing exercises? Let me know if you found this article helpful and if you have any questions. If this is something you are struggling with, feel free to contact me via the contact form on the homepage or via email at or book an appointment via the link down below!



[1] Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B. & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(353). doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353

[2] Jayawardena, R., Ranasinghe, P., Ranawaka, H., Gamage, N., Dissanayake, D. & Misra, A. (2020). Exploring the Therapeutic Benefits of Pranayama (Yogic Breathing): A Systematic Review. International Journal of Yoga. 13. 99. 10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_37_19.

[3] Pal, G. K., Velkumary, S., & Madanmohan (2004). Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers. The Indian journal of medical research, 120[2], 115–121.

[4] Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A. & Gidron, Y. (2019). How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 139. 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011.

[5] Saoji, A. A., Raghavendra, B. R., & Manjunath, N. K. (2019). Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence. Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine, 10[1], 50–58.

[6] Decker, J., Brown, J., Ashley, W. & Lipscomb, A. (2019). Mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises: reduced anxiety for clients and self-care for social work interns. Social Work with Groups. 42. 1-15. 10.1080/01609513.2019.1571763.


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