Woman standing near flowery plant with eyes closed

Focus Breathing: The Breathing Technique to Boost Your Concentration

It may not be obvious, but how you breathe has plenty of impact on your ability to focus and concentrate. That’s another way of saying you might want to pay closer attention to your breathing pattern if you’re looking to boost your concentration or alter your stress response.

Focus breathing exercises might seem like something exclusively for spiritual practices, like meditation practice, but it is a powerful tool for clearing up brain fog, improving memory, and sharpening focus.

Whether you struggle with distractions during your studies or want to boost your concentration and mental health at work, here’s everything you need to know about using deep breathing techniques to get a burst of focus.

How Breathing Patterns Impact Concentration

To many, breathing is merely taking in air and expelling it through the nose or mouth. But there’s more to this automatic activity than meets the eye.

Behind the scenes, your breathing pattern can affect a tiny part of the brain called the locus coeruleus (LC), which plays a part in helping you pay attention and think clearly.

The LC helps the brain function properly but needs the right amount of energy to do it well. When you are in a stressful situation or face threats and challenges, the LC becomes activated, increasing your respiratory rate.

Besides its ability to alert the rest of the brain of looming danger, the LC is also involved in attention and concentration. And since this part of the brain is also sensitive to stress and anxiety, taking slow, deep breaths can indirectly impact the LC and improve concentration.

Engaging in deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can reduce LC activity and the release of norepinephrine, an important neurotransmitter associated with thinking, attention, and concentration.

Here’s another way breathing can affect how your brain works and, by extension, your cognitive abilities (including attention and thinking).

Brain neurons need oxygen to function properly, and deep breathing exercises supply enough oxygen. The increase in oxygen supply to the brain improves cognitive function and enhances concentration.

In a nutshell, focus breathing exercises can help you pay attention and think more clearly to handle your day-to-day tasks.

The Link Between Shallow Breathing and Chronic Stress

Woman doing alternate nostril breathing

Research reveals that stress can kill cells in the brain’s hippocampus area ― the region associated with learning and memory.

Interestingly, shallow breathing can trigger or worsen feelings of stress and anxiety. Small, short breaths trick your body into assuming you are in danger, so it keeps your sympathetic nervous system revved up for longer than necessary.

This means your fight or flight response is almost always ready to go, even though there is no real or immediate threat.

The risk of developing chronic stress shoots through the roof if your sympathetic nervous system is constantly active for extended periods.

But it gets worse.

Chronic stress can wire the brain to continuously send distress signals to the body, leading to constant fear and short, erratic breathing patterns that create a vicious cycle.

One effective way to break the cycle is by practicing focus breathing exercises.

Remember, it is difficult to concentrate when you are anxious and stressed. Actually, that’s not entirely correct; you can concentrate in a stressful or anxious state, but your attention is on all the wrong things.

Why is that?

Your body pumps large doses of adrenaline and cortisol, so your mind is preoccupied with lots of unnecessary “what ifs” and unfounded fears that prevent you from focusing on the task at hand.

In other words, stress turns your ability to concentrate against you ― it shifts your attention from what’s important in the here and now, making you fear and panic over things that may never happen in the future.

Thankfully, you can turn this around by leveraging the power of your breath.

Focus Breathing Techniques to Boost Concentration

Woman and man breathing with eyes closed and hands on the chest

Now that we’re clear about the link between our breathing patterns, stress, and ability to concentrate, it’s time to explore some breathing exercises that can boost our concentration.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Use the alternate nostril breathing exercise to easily sharpen your focus and release tension. It involves balancing both sides of the brain using one finger and alternating breaths through each nostril.

To practice alternate nostril breathing:

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight
  2. Breathe out, letting the air out of your lungs completely
  3. Place your thumb on your right nostril and slowly inhale through the left nostril
  4. Close the left nostril with your index finger
  5. Hold your breath for a count of two
  6. With your finger still on the left nostril, remove your thumb from the right nostril and exhale
  7. Pause for one or two counts at the end of the exhalation before breathing in through the right nostril
  8. Close the right nostril again and hold your breath for a bit
  9. Now, remove your index finger from your left nostril and exhale
  10. Repeat the breathing pattern for 5 minutes or until you feel calm and relaxed

The instructions might appear slightly complex, but they are easy to follow, and with a little patience and practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing is a focus breathing exercise that supplies enough oxygen to the brain, improving your ability to think more clearly.

It involves slowing your breathing rate by filling the belly with air and gently letting it out through the mouth.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit upright or lie down with your back flat (if it is convenient to do so)
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly
  3. Slowly draw in air through your nose into the diaphragm. The hand on your belly (not your chest) should move up as you inhale
  4. Hold your breath for one or two counts
  5. Slowly breathe out through your mouth, expelling all the air
  6. Pause for one to two counts and repeat the exercise for 5 to 10 minutes or until you feel calmer

By slowing down your breathing and filling your diaphragm with air, you reduce your body’s oxygen demand. This produces a calming effect on the body and reduces stress and anxiety.

Box Breathing

Another excellent breathing exercise that can help you refocus quickly is box breathing. This breathing technique is highly effective because it keeps your attention on counting and breathing, allowing you to relax and achieve a steady deep breathing pattern.

Here’s how to achieve this internal focus system:

  1. Sit in a comfortable chair with your back upright
  2. Breathe in through your nose and count from one to four slowly
  3. Hold your breath in and count to four again before exhalation
  4. Slowly breathe out through your mouth for another slow count of four
  5. Pause and count to four before repeating the process

Box breathing seems pretty simple, but don’t be fooled by its simplicity. It is so highly effective that military personnel use it to focus and think straight in high-stress situations and during high-risk missions.

Breath Focus

Breath focus is a breathing exercise that uses guided imagery and calming phrases to reduce anxious thoughts and boost concentration.

Essentially, the practice involves visualizing being in a tranquil environment (think quiet beaches or beautiful gardens) and repeating calming phrases while breathing slowly and deeply.

You can use a phrase like, “I breathe in peace and clarity. I breathe out worry and confusion.” Feel free to formulate a phrase that resonates with you.

How to practice breath focus:

  1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes
  2. Bring your attention to your breathing as you take a few deep breaths
  3. Visualize yourself in a peaceful environment and feel the sights, sounds, and physical sensations of the place
  4. Inhale deeply and imagine your body filled with the peace that comes from being in this environment as you repeat the first part of your phrase, “I breathe in peace and clarity
  5. Exhale, letting all the air out, as you imagine anxious thoughts and stress leaving your body. Repeat the second part of your phrase, “I breathe out worry and confusion”
  6. Repeat the process for about 5 minutes or until you feel calmer and more centered

Breath focus is usually easier in a blissfully quiet place since it involves imagery. However, it is okay to do the exercise anywhere, provided you can visualize yourself in a peaceful setting, focus on your conscious breathing, and repeat your calming phrase.

Final Thoughts

Our daily grind can create tension in our bodies and make us take shallow breaths, even without being aware of it. Unfortunately, our hormones and bodily processes can’t tell when we provide stress-like stimuli consciously or unconsciously. It doesn’t matter one way or the other; as long as we put out the stimuli, our bodies will respond accordingly.

This is why it is important to incorporate a handful of focus breathing exercises into our daily routine. In addition to improving concentration, practicing breathwork regularly ― daily, if possible ― can help us release any tensions we’ve picked up during the course of the day.