Take a Deep Breath to Fight Depression Symptoms

Nov 9, 2023

Young mutli-ethnic woman practices deep belly breathing, meditation in park

Meditation and therapy are a powerful combination to treat depression, which affects millions of us at some point in our lives. Cognitive therapy, for example, recommends many specific, helpful steps–actual steps like walking outside or mindfulness, such as being “in the moment.”

But depression poses a paradox: “It can be really hard to initiate things and find motivation,” said Michelle De Oliveira, occupational therapist and service coordinator at LifeWorks NW’s Zenith Place Residential.

One thing we do every day can help: breathing. Called mindful or intentional breathing, this technique triggers body and brain systems in ways that can address symptoms of depression. Mindful breathing decreases the activity in the amygdala of the brain where emotions are processed, while increasing activity in the frontal lobe where we access logic. It also helps regulate the activity of hormones associated with anxiety, stress and sleep.

According to the National Institutes of Health, mindful breathing addresses symptoms of depression by:

  • Decreasing negative automatic thoughts
  • Helping to stay grounded in the present
  • Increasing focus
  • Improving mind-body connection

To get started, Michelle says, break this new task down into small steps.

“If you want to try mindful breathing, the next step could be selecting a space to do that,” she says. “Next step might be to make it safe, comforting and welcoming. Try using some calming sensory input such as lighting, scents, pillows, blankets or calming music.

“Practice this when you are feeling calm, have cognitive energy and motivation. Practicing will make it easier to do when you’re feeling stressed, depressed and unmotivated.”

Being “in the moment” can be difficult for people with coexisting conditions, like ADHD or trauma, according to Michelle. Focusing on sensory input like music or scent can ease people into their mindful breathing.

Others find it challenging to pause or slow down enough to do mindful breathing. Good news, Michelle said, “this happens naturally in many common activities, such as singing, working out, yoga, walking, running and tai chi. And when done with others, these can provide a way to connect and socialize, all of which can help to improve mood and boost motivation.”

Setting up a special place can be helpful when you first get started, and once you’ve got a routine, you can do mindful breathing anywhere. Apps and online videos show many techniques. Typically, it’s important to:

  • Lie down (or sit up straight) so your lungs and diaphragm can expand.
  • Breathe from your belly – when you engage your diaphragm you can feel your belly going in and out.
  • Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth to a slow count of four, taking the same amount of time on the inhale and exhale.

Something as simple as breathing mindfully can be one of the many little things that help break through the depression paradox.

“Those small steps can be hard to acknowledge as being part of the big picture,” Michelle said. “But those little things add up to big things.”

Learn more

Depression, even the most severe cases, can be treated. You are not alone. See how LifeWorks NW can help you manage your depression.

Depression signs and symptoms (from choosingtherapy.com)

Mindful breathing and depression (from psychcentral.com)