The Why & How of Conscious Breathing

March 23, 2023

If you’re one of the many millions of people managing an overtaxed nervous system, the everyday challenges of being a human (sickness, strained finances, broken vehicles, mean people) can become overwhelming. Fortunately you can create a little emotional padding between you and all the “argh!” in your life through a little conscious breathing. 

When we breathe consciously, we become aware of any unhealthy breathing patterns (think shallow breathing, holding your breath), and with practice, can shift those patterns to better support our physical and emotional well-being. But who the heck wants to be conscious of their breathing all the time? No one. Here's the good thing, even just a few minutes of conscious breathing a day, can change the way you breathe (unconsciously) the rest of the day. 

The “conscious” aspect of conscious breathing means we are focused on and directing our breath, which helps to keep us connected to our physical bodies. That, in turn, keeps our minds from racing or fixating on negative things. When we use conscious breathing techniques it's like pressing “pause” on our thoughts, emotions, and actions–giving our minds much needed rest. Done, even briefly, conscious breathing also sends our minds and bodies the message that things are 'okay', that it's safe to relax, which in turn helps to retrain our bodies to react in a healthier way to stressful situations.

Science tells us that conscious breathing:

  • Signals the brain to release the neurotransmitter GABA which inhibits the release of cortisol and adrenaline
  • Reduces anxiety and feelings of panic
  • Stimulates the lymphatic system
  • Lowers blood pressure 
  • Reduces excess carbon dioxide in the body (at high levels this can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation) 
  • Stimulates the vagus nerve which sends a message back to the brain telling it to relax

But how to do it?

Obviously, we all know how to breathe. But most of us have some less than optimal breathing habits (like breathing to quickly or taking overly big breaths) which can cause either a shortage of oxygen or over oxygenation, and any number of corresponding health issues (e.g. impaired circulation, muscle stiffness, fatigue), not to mention an increase in anxiety. Optimal breathing is how we were designed to breathe, before our bad habits got in the way.

Here’s what that looks like:

  1. Inhale fully (aka deeply) and slowly, sending the oxygen down to your belly, filling up your lungs along the way. If it helps, you can use your mind’s eye to follow your breath in and down, picturing the air pushing out your lungs (on all sides) and belly. 

  2. Exhale slowly, and longer: Think of expelling all the air inside your body in slow motion, making your exhale a bit longer than your inhale (for instance if you inhale on a count of 4, you’ll exhale for a count of between 6-8). 

    A Note about the exhale: Because we’re usually focused on our inhales, the exhale often gets shortchanged. However, when we don’t fully exhale, excess carbon dioxide—a known stressor in our nervous system—remains in our lungs. This triggers a premature inhale which leads to shallow breathing, breath-holding, and too little oxygen getting into our bodies.

  3. Keep your jaw relaxed by leaving a little space between your teeth. You can also try this jaw stretch: open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out as far as it can go. Hold it for a few seconds and repeat 2-3 times. 

    Below are some simple but powerful conscious breathing techniques. 
    I encourage you to try as many as possible to see what works best for you. 

                                                    The 4 x 4     


  • Take a breath in through your nose on the count of 4, and exhale through your nose on the count of 4. Try to draw the breath into your diaphragm, filling up your lungs and belly. Do this 3x.

  • Now add a “hold” after the inhale so it will be an in-breath on the count of 4, hold your breath for 4, exhale for 4. Do this 3x. You can add seconds as it becomes easier. If you stop here this is a 'triangle breath', the final step makes it a square.

  • Now you're going to the exact same thing only this time, add a 4 second hold after the exhale. 

NOTE: You can also try something called a “straw breath” on the exhale, where you purse your lips and exhale as if through (you guessed it) a straw. This will help you exhale slowly and completely. 

This is great to use any time you notice yourself getting agitated, anxious or upset, to give you a chance to regulate and refocus, and good too for any time you think of it throughout the day. The more conscious breathing the better!

                                                    Breathe Sweet Dreams

This powerful evening practice can combat nightmares and ensure a good night’s sleep, and it's incredibly simple. I recommend doing this every night before sleep but if you forget, it can also be done if you wake from a nightmare. This is also a great breathing technique for whenever you’re experiencing symptoms of stress or dysregulation. 

Breathe slowly into your diaphragm on the count of four.

Hold for a count of seven, being sure to keep your body relaxed as you do.

Exhale for a count of eight. 

Repeat a minimum of 10 times, fewer repetitions are significantly less impactful. 

If you feel your jaw getting tight as you do this, you can soften it by stretching out your tongue as far as it can go, then keep your teeth separated when you close your mouth. 

NOTE: There are a few things that do compromise the effect of this technique including short-changing any of the steps or having too much caffeine and/or sugar during the day–especially if it’s late in the day (I know because I am guilty of all of these!).                               

                                           From the Ground Up


Whenever you’re feeling ungrounded or uncentered, you can take a few quiet, seated minutes to refocus yourself with this practice: 

  1. On an inhale, imagine that you are drawing air up from the ground through your feet, then continuing up through your body into your head, and on the exhale, you are sending the air out through the top of your head. Do this 5x.

  2. For an added sense of groundedness, continue the exercise by going in the opposite direction, drawing the air down through your head as you inhale, sending it through your body, and out through your feet into the ground.

Short & Sweet Practices

Awake & oxygenate. As soon as you wake up (and before the thoughts kick-in!), take 5 full breaths. This is the best possible way to start off your day (and be sure to follow them up with a positive self-message–the most important one of your day!)

Narrate your breath. Whenever you start experiencing symptoms of anxiety, inhale while thinking “in” on the inhale and “hale” on the exhale. Also very calming is silently saying to yourself "peace" on the inhale and “ful” on the exhale.

Breathe out the bad. As soon as a negative thought emerges, imagine inhaling right into it and exhaling it out of your head.

Breathe between bites. As you eat, try to insert a pause and breath between bites. This not only aids digestion, but makes the meal that much more satisfying. (I’m not saying this is easy but it’s worth it!)

Create breath-reminders. Consider having a post-it note placed somewhere you’ll regularly see it, that says something like “Take 3 Breaths” or have a phone or email alert, reminding you to breathe.

If you’re looking for more ways to incorporate conscious breathing into your daily life, consider trying yoga, tai chi or qigong. These are movement-based, contemplative practices that promote healthy breathing.