A deep breath can be a natural response in a tense situation, but the benefits of breathwork reach far beyond relaxation. Deep breathing exercises can help reduce anxiety, improve sleep, strengthen the lungs, manage pain and may even enhance treatments for chronic conditions.
Breathwork has been shown to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and calm our fight-or-flight response, which, in turn, brings down our heart rate and blood pressure, says Christopher Suhar, MD, medical director at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and an integrative cardiologist at Scripps Clinic.
“Deep breathing is a meditative tool that can be applied for all chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer care and blood pressure management. These tools can help people cope with their various illnesses,” he says. “Deep breathing allows you time to stop and pause — it allows you to reset from a health perspective.”
Dr. Suhar has been incorporating deep breathing into his integrative medicine practice at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine for years, and though there are countless deep breathing patterns, he favors a tried-and-true method for restoring a sense of calm, referred to as 4-7-8. It’s simple: breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, then breathe out for eight seconds.
He’s also a fan of adding a mantra — a repeated calming word, phrase or sound that helps with concentration and encouragement. Breathe in for five seconds, breathe out for five seconds, then say your mantra (a great one to try is “I live well and healthy”).
Dr. Suhar says that with breathwork, like with most healthy habits, consistency is key. He does four rounds of 4-7-8 breathing every morning and before bed. Regular breathwork can help build resiliency and give users a calming tool for when stressful situations arise.
“We’re trying to encourage patients to use something methodical that they have to do routinely and build into their daily healthy practice,” he says. “You start building in that daily pause, whether you need it or not, and then it starts to tap into the fact that you become more mindful for when those stressful moments pop up.”
Breathwork can also be a steppingstone to mindfulness and meditation. Breathwork plays an important role in many healing practices, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, transcendental meditation, yoga and tai chi, says Dr. Suhar.
“Breathwork is just the start. It’s the foundation that then opens the door to helping people expand their tools and be more open to other therapies,” he says.
To get started, speak with one of the experts at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, or research some of the principles of breathwork online, then craft your own daily practice.
“I can’t tell you how many patients have come back saying that breathwork has made a huge difference in their life,” says Dr. Suhar. “It’s amazing how often we forget to stop and breathe — and it’s such a simple concept. I hearken back to when those stressful moments happen, and you take that deep breath, and it feels good — I think that that should tell a person how useful something like breathwork could be.”
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.