Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Benefits of deep breathing exercises + 8 exercises to get started

Jun 21, 202411 minute read

Managing stress is an important part of living well with OCD. Deep breathing exercises offer a simple and effective stress management tool that can help bring significant benefits to your mental health.

The benefits of deep breathing go beyond simply feeling calmer. By focusing on slow, controlled breaths, you can activate your body’s relaxation response. This physiological shift helps you think more clearly, manage anxiety, and improve your overall emotional well-being—all of which are essential for combating OCD symptoms.

The science behind breathing exercises and improved mental health

Deep breathing exercises are more than just a calming technique—they act as a powerful tool for improving mental health, and studies have shown them to be effective in managing OCD and depression.

The science behind this is linked to the nervous system. When we’re stressed or anxious, our body activates the sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight-or-flight” response. This triggers a series of changes in the body’s systems, including increased heart rate and blood pressure. Deep breathing helps break this cycle by calming your body down and promoting a relaxation response.1

“Stress can cause OCD to flare up, as well as general anxiety. Both have a negative impact on a client’s OCD,” says April Kilduff, Licensed Therapist and Clinical Trainer at NOCD.

Deep breathing techniques can also help lower cortisol levels, a key factor in reducing levels of anxiety.2

Stress can cause OCD to flare up, as well as general anxiety. Both have a negative impact on a client’s OCD.


April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Deep breathing benefits

Deep breathing exercises offer a deep sense of calm. They’re more than just a way to relax in the moment, offering a range of benefits for both your mental and physical health. Here’s how deep breathing can benefit you:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety: Deep breathing lowers stress hormone levels by activating the relaxation response. This technique can be effective when you’re experiencing anxiety, stress, or feeling on edge.
  • Improved sleep quality: Stress impacts your sleep, making it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Deep breathing exercises can help quiet your mind and prepare your body for a night of restful sleep.
  • Enhanced focus and concentration: Deep breathing can help clear your mind of racing thoughts, allowing you to focus more effectively on tasks and improve your overall concentration.
  • Minimized physical tension: Stress often manifests as physical tension throughout the body, leading to headaches, neck pain, and muscle tightness. Deep breathing helps relax your muscles, easing these symptoms.3
  • Boosted immune system function: Studies suggest that deep breathing can strengthen your immune system, making you more resistant to illness. This is especially important during times of high stress when your immune system can be compromised.4

Signs you need to start practicing deep breathing:

  • Feelings of OCD compulsions
  • Feeling constantly on edge or overwhelmed
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent waking at night
  • Difficulty concentrating or racing thoughts
  • Tightness in your muscles or frequent headaches
  • Feeling irritable or short-tempered

If you’re experiencing any of these signs, incorporating deep breathing exercises into your daily routine can be a means for alleviating symptoms of OCD.

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8 deep breathing exercises to put into practice

While the mind-body connection is intricate, sometimes the simplest practices can yield significant results. Deep breathing exercises offer an effective yet accessible mechanism for better health.

This variety of techniques allows you to find what works best for you, empowering you to manage stress, improve focus, and cultivate a sense of calm. Let’s explore eight deep breathing exercises to incorporate into your daily routine:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a foundational deep breathing exercise. It involves engaging the diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle below your lungs, to take slow, deep breaths. 

This simple exercise enables a slower breathing pace by prompting you to bring mindful intention to each breath, leading to a calmer state.5

Here’s a step-by-step guide to diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Find your comfort zone: Settle into a comfortable seated or lying down position. Placing one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach can help you track the movement during the exercise.
  1. Inhale slowly through your nose: Imagine inflating a balloon with your belly. Feel your belly gently push outwards as the diaphragm contracts and pulls air into your lungs. Your chest should move minimally during this process.
  1. Hold for a beat (optional): Once your lungs are comfortably full, you can hold your breath for a second at the peak of inhalation. This step is optional and should be omitted if it feels uncomfortable.
  1. Exhale slowly through pursed lips: Gently release the air from your lungs, feeling your belly sink inwards as the diaphragm relaxes. Purse your lips as if you’re about to whistle and exhale slowly through them.
  1. Repeat and find your rhythm: Practice inhaling for a count of 4-6 seconds, holding for 1-2 seconds (optional), and exhaling for a count of 6-8 seconds. Aim for a slow and steady breathing pace of 6-10 breaths per minute. With practice, you’ll find a comfortable breathing rhythm that works best for you.

Pro tip: For optimal benefits, incorporate 3-4 daily sessions of diaphragmatic breathing, lasting 5-10 minutes each.

2. 4-7-8 breathing

This technique combines breath control with visualization for a strong stress-reduction effect. The 4-7-8 breathing pattern enables relaxation and focus, making it ideal for managing anxiety or unwinding before sleep.

Here’s how to practice 4-7-8 breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a relaxed position. Gently close your eyes if you find it helpful.
  1. Exhale completely: Empty your lungs completely by exhaling through your mouth with a whooshing sound.
  1. Inhale for four seconds: Inhale slowly through your nose for four counts.
  1. Hold for seven seconds: Hold your breath at the top of your inhale for seven counts.
  1. Exhale for eight seconds: Fully exhale through your mouth while creating a whooshing sound for eight counts.
  1. Repeat: Repeat steps 2-5 for several minutes, aiming for 4-8 cycles of breathing.

3. Pursed-lip breathing

Pursed-lip breathing is a simple yet effective technique to manage anxiety in the moment, making it a valuable tool for people with OCD. By slowing your breathing rate and promoting relaxation, pursed-lip breathing can help interrupt the cycle of anxiety and intrusive thoughts associated with OCD.

Here’s how to practice pursed-lip breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or stand comfortably with your shoulders relaxed.
  1. Inhale through your nose: Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of two seconds.
  1. Exhale slowly through pursed lips: Purse your lips as if you’re about to whistle and exhale slowly through them for a count of four seconds. Imagine fogging up a mirror with your breath.
  1. Repeat: Continue inhaling through your nose for two seconds and exhaling through pursed lips for four seconds. Repeat this cycle for several minutes, focusing on the slow and controlled breaths.

4. Lion’s breath

Lion’s breath is a technique that combines forceful exhalation with a unique facial expression for stress release. This exercise can help release facial tension and enable deep relaxation.

Here’s how to practice Lion’s Breath:

  1. Sit comfortably: Sit on the floor with your hands resting on your knees with your fingers spread wide.
  1. Inhale deeply through your nose: Take a deep breath in through your nose, filling your lungs with air.
  1. Exhale forcefully with an open mouth: Open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out as far as possible. Exhale forcefully through your mouth with a loud “ha” sound. Engage your abdominal muscles during the exhale for a more forceful expulsion of air.
  1. Relax your face and inhale: Close your mouth, relax your facial muscles, and inhale calmly through your nose.
  1. Repeat: Repeat steps 2-4 for several cycles, aiming for 2-4 repetitions.

5. Equal breathing

This technique emphasizes inhaling and exhaling for the same duration, boosting balance and focus. Equal breathing can be particularly helpful for improving concentration and reducing mental fatigue.

Here’s how to practice equal breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a relaxed position. Close your eyes gently if you find it helpful.
  1. Inhale through your nose: Inhale slowly and steadily through your nose for a count of four seconds.
  1. Exhale through your nose: Exhale slowly and steadily through your nose for a count of four seconds.
  1. Repeat: Continue inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for four seconds. Aim for several minutes of practice, focusing on maintaining a smooth and even breath.

6. Alternate nostril breathing

This technique requires focusing on the breath entering and leaving each nostril. This focused attention is meant to help temporarily interrupt the cycle of intrusive thoughts often associated with OCD.

This breathing technique enhances cardiovascular function and lowers heart rate, as research has shown.6

Here’s how to practice alternate nostril breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable seated position: Sit upright in a comfortable position with a straight back.
  1. Close your right nostril with your thumb: Gently press your thumb to your right nostril to close it off.
  1. Inhale through your left nostril: Breathe in slowly and steadily through your left nostril for four seconds. Imagine drawing fresh air deep into your body.
  1. Close your left nostril and exhale through the right: Close your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale slowly through your right nostril for four seconds.
  1. Inhale through your right nostril: Inhale slowly through your right nostril for four seconds.
  1. Exhale through your left nostril: Close your right nostril with your thumb and exhale slowly through your left nostril for four seconds.
  1. Repeat: Continue alternating nostrils for several minutes, aiming for up to five minutes of breathing.

7. Breath focus technique

This technique helps quiet the mind by bringing your awareness to the sensations of your breath flowing in and out, promoting a sense of peace. By anchoring your awareness on your breath, you can improve focus and concentration while increasing relaxation.

Here’s how to practice the breath focus technique:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a relaxed position. Close your eyes gently if you find it helpful.
  1. Notice your breath: Begin by simply noticing your natural breath without trying to control it. Feel the air’s coolness entering your nostrils and the warmth of the air leaving your mouth.
  1. Focus on your belly: As you inhale, feel your belly gently rise. As you exhale, feel your belly sink inwards.
  1. Count your breaths (optional): If your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to your breath. You can silently count your breaths to 10, then start over if helpful.
  1. Continue for several minutes: Practice focusing on your breath for several minutes, aiming for 3-5 minutes.

8. Balloon breathing

This visualization technique uses the image of a balloon to create a slow and controlled breathing pattern. Balloon breathing can be particularly helpful for anyone who enjoys visualization exercises.

Here’s how to practice balloon breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a relaxed position. Close your eyes gently if you find it helpful.
  1. Imagine a balloon: Imagine holding a deflated balloon in your hands.
  1. Inhale and inflate the balloon: As you inhale slowly through your nose, visualize the balloon inflating in your hands. Feel your belly gently rise.
  1. Exhale and deflate the balloon: Exhale slowly through your mouth, imagining the balloon slowly deflating in your hands. Feel your belly sink inwards.
  1. Repeat: Continue inhaling and visualizing inflating the balloon, holding (optional), and exhaling and deflating the balloon. Aim for several minutes of practice.

Tips for practicing deep breathing

Making deep breathing a regular habit can significantly enhance its benefits. Here are some pointers to integrate these exercises seamlessly into your daily routine:

Prioritize deep breathing during high-stress situations

When faced with stressful situations, we naturally tend to take shallow breaths.  However, this can exacerbate anxiety. The next time you feel stressed, take a moment to practice deep breathing. Focus on slow, controlled inhalations and exhalations.

Schedule time for breathing exercises

While you can use deep breathing to manage stress in the moment, scheduling dedicated practice sessions allows you to reap the long-term benefits. Set aside 5-10 minutes, 3-4 times a day, to focus solely on your breathing exercises. Find a quiet space where you can relax and avoid distractions.

Integrating deep breathing into your daily routine

Deep breathing doesn’t require dedicated sessions to be effective. You can easily integrate short breathing exercises throughout your day. Try practicing deep breaths while waiting in line or during commercial breaks while watching TV. These small pockets of deep breathing can help manage everyday stress and contribute to your overall wellness.

Know when to seek professional guidance

Deep breathing exercises are a powerful way to help manage OCD symptoms. However, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Listen to your body. If you find that deep breathing and other self-help strategies are not effectively managing your symptoms, it’s important to seek professional guidance for specific treatment.

By prioritizing both your mental and physical health, you can create a positive cycle that enhances long-term relief. Deep breathing exercises can be a part of this cycle but don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance if you need additional support.

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H3: Sources

  1. Harvard Health Publishing (2024, April) “Understanding the stress response.” (Accessed May 2024)
  2. NIH (2022, April) “Stress.” (Accessed May 2024)
  3. APA (2023, March) “Stress effects on the body.” (Accessed May 2024)
  4. University Hospitals (2024, February) “Breathe Your Way to Better Health & Less Stress.” (Accessed May 2024)
  5. NIH (2023, July) “Pursed-lip Breathing.” (Accessed May 2024)

NIH (2021, April) “Effects of Alternate Nostril Breathing Exercise on Cardiorespiratory Functions in Healthy Young Adults.” (Accessed May 2024)

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