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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’s a good reason why we often hear people say, “keep breathing.”

Deep breathing exercises can have a profound effect on our state of mind, as well as improve the quality of our 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.

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Can breathing exercises help with stress?

Key takeaways:

  • Studies show breathing exercises can improve cognitive function, encourage positive thought, and reduce symptoms of anxiety

  • We can do breathing exercises anywhere to help feel relaxed or more energized

  • Try 18 meditations for stress

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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’re taught the importance of having correct posture, breathing properly, and preparing the mind.

Today, studies show that breathing exercises can actually improve cognitive function, encourage positive thought processes, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. In a 2018 study, it was shown that there’s 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, a natural chemical messenger released when we are challenged, focused, or emotionally aroused. When we’re stressed, we produce too much. When we’re 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 — a mindless breathing pattern of inhaling through the mouth, holding the breath, and taking 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 us more conscious of our habits outside of the exercise.

How to begin breathing exercises

The beauty of this practice, and meditation as a whole, is that we can do it anywhere. Ideally, for a full deep breathing exercise, we’re able to find a comfortable seat in an upright position. As we inhale, our diaphragm muscle contracts downwards and as we exhale, the muscle relaxes upward; having the space in our physical body to expand is helpful in order to reap the benefits.

With that, if we find ourselves trapped in the shallow breathing zone, or our heart rate is increasing due to stress, we can reset wherever we are (standing, lying down, or sitting). The 2 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 we already do as part of an existing daily routine, like brushing our teeth, that we can attach that new 30-second action to. For example: “I’ll count 15 inhale and exhale breath cycles for 30 seconds before I brush my teeth.”

Choosing the right breathing exercise

There are countless techniques we can practice, including breathing exercises for stress, increased energy, and general relaxation.

  • Beginner? Try breath counting.

    The simplest breathing technique is to count our breaths. We start by counting 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale, and so forth. We can choose to count up to 5, then repeat back at 1, to make sure our attention doesn’t wander. Consider setting a timer, or perhaps set our goal for the number of breath cycles we’ll count.

  • Stressed? Try box breathing.

    Practice the following process: inhale for a count of 4, hold the 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.

  • Want to relax? Try alternate nostril breathing.

    Also called Nadi Shodhana, this technique is best practiced sitting straight with a long spine — take the thumb and close off one nostril, then inhale fully. When the lungs have expanded completely, release the thumb and immediately use the ring finger to close off the opposite nostril and exhale slowly. Repeat while switching nostrils for every inhale and exhale. 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.

  • Need more energy? Try bellows breath.

    Also called 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 our leisure. It’s recommended to practice first thing in the morning or right around the midday slump.

Try 18 meditations for stress

Looking for meditations that help in managing stress? The Headspace app has a Reframe stress and relax collection that offers subscribers several courses and single meditations for immediate and long-term stress reduction, including:

  • Letting Go of Stress course. Learn to reframe negative emotions and let them go.

  • Restlessness course. Learn to work with a restless mind more skillfully.

  • Transforming Anger course. Connect with anger and use it to train your mind.

  • Navigating Change course. Train your mind to be more comfortable with change.

  • How We Forgive Ourselves guidance. Being present helps us leave regret in the past.

  • Feeling Overwhelmed meditation. Give yourself room to breathe.

  • Burned Out meditation. Step away from worried thoughts.

  • Panicking meditation. Anchor your mind and body in the present.

  • Losing Your Temper meditation. Let go of whatever’s causing you to feel frustrated.

  • Flustered meditation. Bring an unsettled mind back to the subject at hand.

  • In Pain meditation. Change your relationship to physical pain.

  • Stress Release workout. Step away from stress and into the moment.

  • Unwind meditation. Lead your mind to a natural place of rest.

  • Restore meditation. Let go of any tension or busyness in the mind.

  • Frustrated meditation. Let go of tension and find a little peace of mind.

  • Stressed meditation. Recognize what’s occupying your mind and let it go.

  • Taking a Break meditation. Press pause in the middle of your workday.

  • Reset meditation. Find some focus and relaxation during a busy day.

There are many, many more methods we can learn and begin practicing during times of stress, sluggishness, or when we want to simply feel centered. Just remember that the most advanced stress management tool is right at the tip of your tongue — quite literally — whenever you need it.

Be kind to your mind

  • Access the full library of 500+ meditations on everything from stress, to resilience, to compassion
  • Put your mind to bed with sleep sounds, music, and wind-down exercises
  • Make mindfulness a part of your daily routine with tension-releasing workouts, relaxing yoga, Focus music playlists, and more
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