Most of us rarely, if ever, experience extreme stress from life-threatening events.
And yet, we spend much of our lives in a state of half-anxiety, neither fully relaxed nor fully stimulated (Nestor, 2020).
There is a way to regain control of that anxiety using a resource we already have: our breath. Research and ancient wisdom confirm that controlling our breathing is a powerful tool for quieting our racing minds and entering a state of calm (Cuddy, 2018).
This article explores the interaction between stress and breathing and introduces techniques for using our breath to regain control over our lives.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and those you work with, with tools to manage stress better and find a healthier balance in your life.
This Article Contains:
How Does Stress Affect Breathing?
Stress and breathing are intimately connected; changing one influences the other.
Crucially, they both have a relationship with the autonomic nervous system and, of particular importance, the vagus nerve – “a meandering network within the system that connects to all the major internal organs” (Nestor, 2020, p. 148).
While treatments for patients with health problems, such as rapid heart rate, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction, often focus on individual organs, research suggests they may, in fact, be experiencing communication problems along the autonomic and vagal network (Nestor, 2020).
Despite breathing being an autonomic function, we can consciously take control, choosing how and when we breathe. Breathe heavy and fast, and we kick in our sympathetic nervous system. We ready ourselves to engage in our fight-or-flight response (Howgego, 2020; Nestor, 2020).
Switching to deliberate, slow breathing flips our vagal response, and our parasympathetic system kicks in, allowing us to relax and recover, releasing powerful feel-good endorphins (Howgego, 2020; Nestor, 2020).
So, what happens to our breathing when we get stressed?
We typically overbreathe when rushing up the stairs to answer a call, running to catch a bus, or getting startled by a loud noise. Such breathing patterns can also result from “habitual ways of responding to situations,” including stress (Khazan, 2019, p. 33).
When we feel anxious, our body is getting ready to run away or stand up and fight. In anticipation of urgent action and a need for extra oxygen, we start taking in more air. If we are not being active (perhaps standing, waiting anxiously for an interview), we take in more air than we need and exhale more carbon dioxide than we produce (Khazan, 2019).
Overbreathing can cause various symptoms that can leave us feeling more stressed, including (Khazan, 2019):
- Pounding heart
- Lightheadedness and dizziness
- Muscle tension
- Agitation and restlessness
- Nausea and ‘butterflies’ in the stomach
- Difficulty concentrating and making good decisions
- Trouble regulating emotions
- Feelings of disconnectedness from our body and the environment
Overbreathing can cause or exacerbate a host of health problems, including asthma, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and insomnia (Khazan, 2019).
On the other hand, breathing well has the power to reduce physiological activation, slow our thinking, and induce a state of calm (Cuddy, 2018).
How to Breathe for Stress Relief
A healthy human has two options for breathing: the mouth or the nose.
While they are both effective ways of gaining vital oxygen into the body, they are not equal.
Though natural, “breathing is surprisingly easy to get wrong” (Williams, 2020); we often inhale through our mouth when we should use our nose.
Nasal breathing “kills bacteria and viruses and relaxes the blood vessels in the respiratory tract, allowing more oxygen to pass into the blood” (Williams, 2020).
Not only that, but the nose allows us to draw more oxygen from our environment than mouth breathing (up to 20% more), improves sleep, reduces tooth decay, and encourages learning (Williams, 2020).
Slowing the breathing down to about six breaths per minute through the nose reduces the heart rate, widens blood vessels, lowers stress, and promotes calm. Lengthening the out-breath with long, slow exhalations lulls us into an altered state of consciousness that can look much like slow-wave sleep on a brain scan (Williams, 2020).
When we are experiencing acute stress, the sympathetic system takes control and the vagus nerve is inhibited. High and sustained “vagal withdrawal has been associated with high self-reported levels of stress, anxiety, and depression” (Cuddy, 2018, p. 189).
Getting our breathing right can help us reach a high vagal tone when at rest – associated with good physical and mental health, including a reduction in stress.
Amy Cuddy (2018) suggests trying the following:
- Find a quiet space to focus on your breathing.
- Inhale quickly and exhale slowly.
- Repeat, but this time, inhale for two seconds, and exhale for five seconds.
- Continue for as long as comfortable.
Do you notice anything? The slow exhalation triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your blood pressure and increasing heart rate variability (HRV). A high HRV indicates your breathing and heart rate are in sync, linked to reduced stress, feelings of anger, and impulsive behavior (Cuddy, 2018).
In a study run by neuroscientist Pierre Philippot, participants found that breathing slowly through the nose not only reduced feelings of stress but also resulted in the positive emotion of joy (Cuddy, 2018).
4 Best Stress-Relief Breathing Exercises
Mindfulness helps us remain in the present moment. It is a powerful tool for reducing the sense of struggle and managing stress (Khazan, 2019).
The following stress-relief exercises should all be performed in a safe location, not while driving or putting yourself or others at risk through lack of attention or potentially falling asleep.
Mindful awareness of regular breathing
Khazan (2019, p. 41) suggests that mindful breathing is a practical and straightforward way to make “helpful breathing changes” by allowing you to “breathe just the way you do without a struggle.”
Try the following, letting go of expectations (Khazan, 2019):
- Find a comfortable place to sit upright, away from noise.
- Begin by closing your eyes and noticing physical sensations (your body’s contact with the seat and your feet on the floor).
- Gently focus on the sensation of inhalation (the air coming in your nose, and your chest and stomach rising).
- Without judgment or expectation, transition gently between inhalation and exhalation.
- Focus on the sensation of exhalation (the air coming out of your nose, and chest and your stomach falling).
- Notice and acknowledge thoughts, emotions, and sensations accompanying each breath without engaging, letting them pass with kindness and compassion.
- If your mind wanders, gently return your focus to each breath – just as it is.
- Repeat for as long as you wish.
It may take time to become comfortable with this exercise. With practice, it becomes easier to focus on breathing and avoid the mind wandering off.
Finger breathing for children
Mindfulness and breath control may not be straightforward concepts for younger children. These concepts can be made easier through a simple mindful breathing technique that follows the outline of the hand.
Ask the child to follow these instructions:
- Find a comfortable place to sit.
- Using your pointer finger, slowly trace around the fingers on your other hand. Start at the bottom of the thumb and follow it up to its tip then back down the other side.
- On the way up, breathe in; on the way down, breathe out.
- Repeat for each finger, from the thumb to the pinkie and then back again.
- Once done, ask the child how they feel.
Apparently, box breathing is so successful that US Navy Seals use it to remain calm under pressure (Nestor, 2020).
It’s also easy to teach, remember, and use. Think of the sides of a square as you breathe:
“Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 4; hold 4. Repeat” (Nestor, 2020, p. 229).
For a greater parasympathetic response, change the above to:
“Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 6; hold 2. Repeat” (Nestor, 2020, p. 229).
Aim for at least six rounds.
Made popular by Dr. Andrew Weil, 4-7-8 breathing is an effective technique for placing the body in deep relaxation. It can be particularly effective at helping you fall asleep and resetting after intense periods of work or study (Nestor, 2020).
Try the following:
- Inhale to a count of four with your mouth closed.
- Hold to a count of seven.
- Exhale through pursed lips with a whooshing sound to a count of eight.
- Repeat the cycle up to four times, unless uncomfortable.
Aim to repeat 4-7-8 breathing twice a day, limiting yourself to four breath cycles in the beginning. You can gradually increase, but don’t go beyond eight cycles.
This video from Dr. Andrew Weil can be helpful:
3 Helpful Deep-Breathing Techniques
Deep breathing can have far-reaching effects, from reducing stress to making the experience of pain more manageable (Lewis, 2004).
Try out the following and remember that they take practice.
Mindful slow and deep breathing
Once comfortable with mindful breathing, it can be helpful to introduce mindful change (Khazan, 2019).
The following steps help you move toward a calming and stress-reducing breath that avoids overbreathing (Khazan, 2019):
- Ideally, perform this exercise lying down to allow the diaphragm to move more comfortably.
- Begin by taking a few normal, regular-sized breaths.
- When ready, take a deeper in-breath, then exhale fully and slowly until the lungs are comfortably emptied. Breathing out through pursed lips can help you achieve the ideal ratio of 60% of your breath for exhalation (versus 40% for inhalation).
- Use your abdomen to breathe in and out rather than your chest. Imagine it as a balloon filling and emptying.
- Repeat steps three and four for about five minutes, focusing on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the body.
- If you find it difficult to relax, let go of relaxation as an intention and focus only on the process of breathing.
Begin by practicing this technique for 5 minutes a day, working up to 10 minutes over the following weeks.
Slowing down your breathing
Lewis (2004) suggests that slowing down our breathing, from the typical adult at-rest rate of between 12 and 15 breaths per minute closer to 6 breaths per minute, benefits our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing and overall degree of stress.
The drop in breathing rate is considerable and should not be forced. Instead, the goal is to slow your breathing while remaining comfortable. Practice for a few minutes per day for change to take place naturally.
Your aim is simple: deepen your breathing and lengthen your exhalation to help turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, or your “relaxation response” (Lewis, 2004, p. 160).
Lewis (2004) suggests keeping your spine erect yet supple, opening up the spaces of your body. Take deeper breaths, expanding the abdomen then chest to increase the amount of air you take in. Visualize your body filling and emptying itself of air, following each breath with your body and mind.
One way to maintain focus on the length of exhalation is through counting. Once relaxed, your breathing easy and gentle, slowly count the out-breath in your head. Then, if you can do it comfortably, try extending your next exhalation by a count of one. Keep breathing at this new count, unless you cannot easily maintain it – then reduce again by one.
Restricting the out-breath through increasingly pursed lips can also be helpful as a way of slowing exhalation. This also makes it easier to pay more attention to the sounds of the air as it escapes.
“Healthy diaphragmatic breathing is closely associated with the ability of the abdomen to expand and retract, open and close, with each breath,” (Lewis, 2004, p. 45).
When our breathing is free and natural, so is the movement of our belly. Allowing your diaphragm to move deeper into your abdomen can improve your ability to breathe fully and deeply (Lewis, 2004).
- Find a comfortable place to lie down.
- Bend your knees so that they point upward, with your feet on the floor
- For a few minutes, simply follow the effect of your body on your breathing and your breathing on your body.
- Place both hands, one on top of the other, on your stomach, and watch how your breathing responds.
- “You may notice your body trying to expand as you inhale and retract as you exhale” (Lewis, 2004, p. 45). This is natural, but don’t force it.
- Gently massage around the navel, feeling the sensations and how each breath is drawn toward them.
When you stop, become aware of the sensations across the whole of your abdomen. Let them spread to the rest of your body, feeling their warmth, comfort, and energy (Lewis, 2004).
Performed regularly, this practice can positively affect your breathing and make it fuller and more natural (Lewis, 2004).
Our Stress Management Resources
We have many tools and techniques that focus on how to relax through breathing. Why not try out some of the following exercises yourself or with your clients?
First, we recommend downloading our free mindfulness tool pack to try out the powerful tools contained within, including:
- Leaves on a Stream
This beautiful exercise will help you separate from your thoughts, letting go rather than getting caught up in them.
- Eye of the Hurricane Metaphor
Focusing your attention inward can help you disengage from a hectic world and create more inner peace.
Other free resources include:
- Breath Awareness
Awareness of our breath can help us release stress and tension, providing a welcome break to a busy day.
- Yogic Breathing
Try out yogic breathing to become more aware of your breathing and take time for mindful relaxation.
- Stress Relief Books
In this article – Stress-Relief Books About the Science of Managing Anxiety – we suggest 13 books ideal for taking away stress and anxiety.
More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:
- The Three-Minute Breathing Space
Even a short time focusing on our breathing can help integrate aspects of mindfulness into a busy schedule.
The downloadable audio is divided into three sections:
Awareness – How are you doing right now?
Breathing – Focus full attention on each breath.
Expansion of attention – Allow your attention to expand to the rest of the body.
- Connecting to Your Intuition
Heart-focused breathing can be used to enhance our connection with our intuition and cultivate intuitive intelligence.
Step one – Begin by thinking about a problem or decision you currently face and formulate it as a question.
Step two – With your hand placed over your heart, breathe in and out slowly.
Step three – Connect with each intuition regarding possible solutions.
Step four – Reflect on the sensation around your heart as you consider each intuition.
The nature of your sensation can help you feel more confident in your decision. Find out more here about developing and training your intution.
- 17 Mindfulness & Meditation Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enjoy the benefits of mindfulness, check out this collection of 17 validated mindfulness tools for practitioners. Use them to help others reduce stress and create positive shifts in their mental, physical, and emotional health.
A Take-Home Message
While breathing is typically performed without awareness or conscious thought, it is closely connected to our experience of and response to stress.
Even for a short period, gaining control of each breath can slow a busy mind, reduce stress, and help us become more aware of ourselves and our surroundings.
Learning and regularly practicing simple techniques such as box breathing and 4-7-8 breathing can significantly affect our mental and physical wellbeing, placing us more in the present and better able to cope with stress-inducing events.
Once you’re comfortable with these straightforward breathing practices, further slowing and deepening each breath can increase the effect of the parasympathetic nervous system, boosting your ability to recover and experience the impact of feel-good endorphins.
Why not try out some of these exercises? Even stopping overbreathing can change our response to our environment, increasing control over our body and mind. Make breathing techniques a regular habit in your busy day to gain ongoing and long-term benefits to your wellbeing.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Cuddy, A. J. (2018). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. Little, Brown Spark.
- Howgego, J. (2020). Relaxing relieves stress. Here’s the best way to do it. New Scientist. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532640-600-relaxing-relieves-stress-heres-the-best-way-to-do-it/
- Khazan, I. Z. (2019). Biofeedback and mindfulness in everyday life: Practical solutions for improving your health and performance. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Lewis, D. (2004). Free your breath, free your life: How conscious breathing can relieve stress, increase vitality, and help you live more fully. Shambhala.
- Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The new science of a lost art. Penguin Books.
- Williams, C. (2020). How to breathe your way to better memory and sleep. New Scientist. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532640-600-how-to-breathe-your-way-to-better-memory-and-sleep/