One of the most powerful ways to impact your emotions and improve your mood is through the breath. In Sanskrit the word for breath is prana, which also means “life” or “spirit.” This is because the oxygen we inhale is necessary for the functioning of every cell in our body. We can live weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air.

How we breathe both reflects and influences the state of our nervous system. For example, when we become anxious or fearful, we tend to breathe shallowly and rapidly. This rapid breathing is usually accompanied by racing thoughts and out-of-control worries. An effective way to lessen these thoughts is to breathe more slowly and deeply. As you slow down your breathing, three things will occur:

1) Your thoughts will slow down and diminish.
2) You mind will feel calm.
3) Your body will feel more relaxed.

During this process, it may also help to hold yourself—placing one hand on your belly and another on your heart as you breathe. Experiment with finding a physical posture that feels soothing and nurturing. Breathing deeply not only alleviates anxiety, it can increase our energy, vitality, and mental focus. One way to accomplish this is through abdominal breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing). This type of breathing is widely taught in yoga classes, so you may be aware of it. The process involves using your entire chest and abdominal cavity to breathe. Here is a brief description of the process which you can try right now.

Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight (you can also do this lying on your back). Place both hands on your abdomen, right beneath your rib cage, with the fingers of the hands each spread out and just touching each other. Now inhale slowly and deeply, pushing the air downward towards your tummy. As the belly fills with air and expands, you should notice that the fingers of your two hands slowly move apart.

When you have taken a full breath, pause momentarily and exhale slowly through your nose or mouth. As you do so, you will see your abdomen deflating, much like a balloon that is letting its air out. Allow your body to go limp as you watch the hands on your abdomen slowly return to their original position. Your fingers should now be touching again.

Try repeating this eight to ten times, breathing deeply and slowly without gulping in air or letting it all out at once. You may wish to count to four on the inhale and eight on the exhale, or whatever rhythm works best for you.

I encourage you to practice abdominal breathing. You can take a time out in the middle of busy day to observe your breath, or refresh yourself when you are overly tired.