Many people believe that breathing deeply and slowly helps you relax, but that’s not always true. If you’re in pain or feeling anxious deep breathing is counterproductive. But deep, slow breathing is helpful when you’re feeling calm or happy. Breathing deeply has its place, and you can use it to grow stronger when you use it wisely.

Think about breathing as an exercise. When performed well, intentional breathing can make you physically stronger since respiration muscles increase strength. This improves your overall performance, says Al Lee, co-author of Perfect Breathing. (Breathe better, and other forms of exercise will work better for you as well.) Beyond the physical domain, breathing affects us psychologically. It can improve our overall well-being, and it is often woven into spiritual language. Breathing touches everything we do. Why wouldn’t it? After all, breathing is both the first and last thing we do in life.

Given that breathing infuses our lives with life, then it really is true that breathing better makes life better. That’s where deep breathing comes in. Deep breathing literally expands the way that you breathe. A kind of cross-training for your brain/body, deep breathing can strengthen you physically and mentally.

Deep Breathing Amplifies

Use deep breathing wisely because it amplifies your current state. It activates the stress response system, heightening your awareness. This means if you’re feeling anxious or hurt, then deep breathing will cause you to feel more pain or anxiety. If, on the other hand, you feel calm, happy, or satisfied, then breathing deeply will strengthen those emotions.

This is why it’s often helpful to practice deep breathing after a yoga class. You’re experiencing a feeling of well-being from the class. As you breathe deeply and slowly, your sense of well-being deepens. Afterward, you feel fantastic!

Deep breathing also greatly enhances other methods, such as meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback, neurofeedback, and hypnosis. Researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity discovered that breathing amplifiers our attention and helps us to be more focused. In essence, breathing exercises and meditation can improve the way your brain works.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing practice works better when you have good form, report researchers in Frontiers in Psychology. When you activate the diaphragm muscle, the diaphragm pulls downward, drawing the air deep into your lungs. As it does this, your belly expands, almost like your lungs are located down in your belly. Begin by breathing in at a rate slightly slower than feels comfortable. Draw the breath in slowly and fully. Do a few breaths, focusing on your form. Then stop and notice how you feel. What feeling did the exercise amplify?

The next time, increase your repetitions. Note that you are causing some temporary oxygen depletion, and there will be some natural limits to how long this should be done. (You don’t want to feel faint or dizzy, and you don’t want to lose consciousness.) I’d recommend not doing the deep breathing exercise for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Within that timeframe, you’ll gain all the benefits without causing yourself harm.

This exercise can be used to amplify positive states as well as to activate the stress system artificially. Why would you do that? If you want to sharpen your mind and be in a peak “readiness” state, then deep breathing may help you do so at will. Deep breathing also can strengthen positive emotions, strengthen your physical capacity, and help clear your mind. Used wisely and well, deep, slow breathing can enhance your life in many ways.