Breathing exercises to reduce stress
One of the most overlooked — yet most effective — stress management tools is something we involuntarily carry with us throughout every second of the day: our breath. There is a good reason why we often hear people say, “Keep breathing.”
Deep breathing exercises can have a profound effect on your state of mind, as well as improve the quality of your meditation practice. While allowing the breath to flow naturally throughout meditation is encouraged, intentionally taking a couple of deep breaths initially can help ground the mind and create space for growth.
Deep breathing benefits
For hundreds of years, Buddhists, yoga practitioners, and eastern healers have believed that the breath is the foundation of our life force and energy — which is why many meditation practices and yoga classes include a strong focus on deep breathing techniques. When training in Buddhist meditation, we are taught the importance of having correct posture, breathing properly, and preparing the mind.
In a 2018 study from Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, it was shown that there is a neurological link between respiration and focus. The study showed that those who incorporated intentional and consistent breathing exercises affected the levels of noradrenaline in their brain, which is a natural chemical messenger released when we are challenged, focused, or emotionally aroused. When we are stressed, we produce too much, and when we are sluggish, we produce too little; those who practiced daily breathing techniques produced the sweet spot of noradrenaline and showed exceptional ability to focus.
What’s more, breathing exercises for anxiety have been shown to improve symptoms of depression in addition to reducing the symptoms of anxiety. Many people have unintentionally become shallow breathers, which is a mindless breathing pattern where you inhale through the mouth, hold the breath, and take in less air. Long-term shallow breathing can actually keep the body in a cycle of stress, affecting everything from mental to physical health and even susceptibility to illness. While we shouldn’t stay in a prolonged state of controlled breath, starting the practice for a few moments per day can make you more conscious of your habits outside of the exercise.
How to begin your breathing exercises
The beauty of this practice, and meditation as a whole, is that you can do it anywhere. Ideally, for a full deep breathing exercise, you are able to find a comfortable seat in an upright position. As you inhale, your diaphragm muscle contracts downwards and as you exhale, the muscle relaxes upward; having the space in your physical body to expand is helpful in order to reap the benefits.
With that, if you find yourself trapped in the shallow breathing zone, or your heart rate is increasing due to stress, you can reset wherever you are (standing, lying down, or sitting). The two basic types of breathing include chest breathing, which is generally the body’s response to stressful situations or great exertion, and diaphragmatic breathing, which is the most efficient practice for relaxation coming from the diaphragm (what we’re discussing here within the context of breathing exercises).
To incorporate a new daily habit into your routine, it’s helpful to have a habit anchor. Research shows that combining a 30-second action with a “habit anchor” can make new routines more likely to stick. The habit anchor is something that you already do as part of an existing daily routine, like brushing your teeth, that you can attach that new 30-second action to. For example: “I will count 15 inhale and exhale breath cycles for 30 seconds before I brush my teeth.”
Choosing the breathing exercise that’s right for you
There are countless techniques you can practice, including breathing exercises for stress, increased energy, and general relaxation. The simplest breathing technique is to count your breaths. You start by counting 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale, and so forth. You can choose to count up to five, then repeat back at one, to make sure your attention doesn’t wander. You might want to set a timer, as you would a meditation, or perhaps set your goal for the number of breath cycles you will count.
Box breathing is helpful during extreme stress, where you practice the following process: inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, wait at the very end of the exhale for a count of 4, and repeat. This is a very deep breathing exercise that has been shown to calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system. Slowing down the breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood, which stimulates the response of the vagus nerve to produce feelings of calmness throughout the body.
Alternate nostril breathing, also called Nadi Shodhana, is a practice that can increase energy and calmness. This is best practiced sitting straight with a long spine — take your thumb and close off one nostril, then inhale fully. When your lungs have expanded completely, release your thumb and immediately use your ring finger to close off the opposite nostril and exhale slowly. You will repeat while switching nostrils for your inhales and exhales. In yogic text, this method is said to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain to produce a stable and pure state of mind.
Bellows breath, or Bhastrika, is an extremely energizing practice that is commonly called “breath of fire” in the yoga room (and compared to a cup of coffee). It’s done by sitting down with a long, tall spine, and vigorously breathing in and out of the nose while the abdominal muscles contract and the belly appears to quickly rise and fall. This is one of the more challenging breathing exercises to practice, because of the coordination between the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. It is helpful to learn bellows breath straight from an instructor, then continue the practice at your leisure. It’s recommended to practice first thing in the morning or right around your mid-day slump.
There are many, many more methods you can learn and begin practicing during times of stress, sluggishness, or when you want to simply feel centered. Start by using the short breath sessions in the Headspace app, the counting method, or head to a local class and learn more concentrated techniques. The most advanced stress management tool is right at the tip of your tongue, quite literally, whenever you need it.