Why better breathing could improve your mental health

Harnessing the power of your breathing system can improve your health and wellbeing
Harnessing the power of your breathing system can improve your health and wellbeing

It was while in a heavy state of grief that Stuart Sandeman discovered the power of the breath to alleviate his anxiety and depression.

Losing his girlfriend to cancer had taken him into a dark head-space; angry at the unfairness of the world and unsure of his place in it. By chance he found himself at a breath workshop with his mother, and what he discovered that day sowed the seeds of his present life.

Not only did it give him the tools to navigate his way through grief, cultivating a kinder internal voice, but he discovered a renewed love of the world. “I realised I was feeling energised, physically better and able to do things without feeling so heavy. On the mental and emotional side, I felt more aligned, open and passionate about life,” says the 35-year-old from Edinburgh.

Today he works as a breath coach. As the founder of London based @breathpod, he shows others how harnessing the power of your breathing system can improve your health and wellbeing.

And in Mental Health Awareness Week, he explains how it can not only see us through daily anxieties at work, but through that hardest moments in our lives. What struck Sandeman initially is how much more accessible breathwork is than cultivating a meditation practice. Quietening internal thoughts can be an overwhelming challenge, especially when you have a lot on your mind. But focusing on the breath, he says, can trick us into moving from our doing state into being.

“It makes us be present in the moment, which is the essence of meditation. So we get all the  benefits of meditation, without having to stress: ‘I was thinking too much!’,” he says.

Stuart Sandeman

That most of us spend a disproportionate time in the ‘doing state’ is part of the problem. When we’re on the go we tend to take, rapid, short breaths. Even more so when we’re stressed or anxious.

Every inhale moves us into a stress response, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. “No matter how we’re doing it, the heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up and blood flow goes to our muscles,” says Sandeman. “Then on every out breath, the heart rate and blood pressure goes down, and blood flow returns to our digestion and production organs.”

If we are stressed, anxious or afraid, this can lead to over-breathing and Sandeman says there is a correlation between mental health and dysfunctional breathing patterns that prioritise the inhale over the exhale.  

“Bringing in more air through your day keeps you in a stressed state. The brain will prioritise the fight and flight mode, over rest and digest, which can lead to digestive issues or fertility problems.”

However, once we understand this, we can start to use it to our advantage.

Sandeman says having a few breathing techniques in your toolkit can allow us to tune out of the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response, and into our parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest.

His first pillar of breathing is to observe your breath in the moment. “You know what time you can run in the gym, or what weight you can lift, so why not observe your breath?

"What we want is slow, deep, light diaphragmatic breathing, often called ‘belly breath’, in and out of the nose."

If you’re having a panic attack, then it will become shallow. Sandeman’s instant fix is to double the exhale. “By breathing a lot slower I can override the system and tell my brain everything is OK.”

The second pillar goes deeper: Breath therapy works with the trigger that causes us to feel a certain way in the first place.

“The breath is a link to our emotions and every emotion has a different breath pattern. It's the breath pattern, rhythm and depth that triggers the brains response."

He compares it to how we each respond to a dog running into the room. Those of us with no bad past experiences of dogs will get excited and release endorphins. Those with trauma will most likely hold their breath.

“Restricting our breath tightens our muscles, and we hold onto this energetically in our cellular memory,” says Sandeman.

He now recognises that this was exactly what he was doing when he held onto his feelings of grief. The reason he thinks he was holding onto it was a much deeper belief that ‘big boys don’t cry’. “I was doing martial arts at four years old and had a teddy bear called Tough Ted.  There was a pattern of not wanting to show emotion. But when I allowed myself to open up into a functional breath pattern, it allowed me to feel physically and emotionally.”

Not that he doesn’t still get stressed. But instead of reaching for pills, or feeling down, he sees breathwork as the cure, saying: “Mastering that we can become a Jedi in our own experiences.”

3 breathing exercises to try:

The panic button

Next time you feel panicked or stressed start to double your exhale to your inhale. This allows us to move into our parasympathetic nervous system.

What I like to do is breathe in for four and breath out for eight. Either through the nose or the mouth.

4,7,8 breath

This practice using breath retention works with the idea of air hunger. Holding the breath starts sending oxygen to our brain. The body starts preserving areas it needs to look after if there’s no fresh air coming in. So it starts calming down the system. The longer exhale activates the vagus nerve on the brain stem, which triggers a rest response. It secretes on our heart, runs from the brain stem across the heart to the diaphragm. So the heart rate slows down.

Breath in for four, retain for 7 and breath out for 8. This should move you into a restful state. You’re effectively hacking into the hard-wiring of your body. The physiology, neurology and the alchemy of carbon dioxide and oxygen levels.

Box breathing

Similar to the 4,7,8 breath, box breathing uses equal breaths. Inhale, retain and exhale, each to a count of four. And then repeat, perhaps increasing to 5,5,5 or 6,6,6.

I use box breathing day to day just to reset body and breath as I’m going from A to B. We tend to be rushing around and over-breathing as default. So this balances the system out.