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Breathe Your Way to Stress Relief

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

My 5 Favorite Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief

A little stress has its benefits. Healthy stress can help sharpen your focus so you can power through that work presentation, for example, creatively solve a pressing problem. If we had no stress in your life, we’d likely be bored, unmotivated, and not living up to your full potential.

But when stress becomes chronic, or long term, it begins to take a toll on both your body and your brain. More than three-fourths of all Americans regularly experience stress-related physical symptoms such as fatigue, headache, or an upset stomach.(1) Stress seeps into relationships, invades your office space, and keeps you up at night.

Fortunately, you can learn to manage it, and simple breathing techniques can help. Here are five breathing exercises to help you through your next difficult moment.

While we can’t eliminate all stress from our lives, we can control our responses to it. Stressful experiences often trigger a cascade of fears and anxieties. As a result, we get so carried away by our thought processes that we’re unable to cope with the reality of the moment.

When we’re stressed, we go into what’s known as “fight-or-flight” mode: our body releases a surge of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which snaps you into high-alert mode. Blood pressure and heart rate go up, muscles tighten, you breathe faster, and your senses sharpen.

Try These Five Breathing Exercises for Stress Management

1. Basic Beginner Breaths

The most basic way to do mindful breathing is to focus your attention on your breath, both the inhale and the exhale, ideally sitting or lying down (you may find it easier to hold onto your focus with your eyes closed).

Take exaggerated breaths: a deep three-second inhale through your nose, hold your breath for two seconds, and breathe out through your mouth for four seconds. When your mind wanders, bring your attention once again to your breath. Repeat. Try working your way up to about 15 minutes a day.

2. 4-7-8 Breathing

This technique, developed by integrative medicine guru Andrew Weil, MD, is based on the yogic technique pranayama. Weil himself refers to it as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.

How to do it:

  • Sit with your back straight and place the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth. You’ll need to keep it there throughout this breathing exercise

  • Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound

  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to the silent count of four

  • Hold your breath for a count of seven

  • Open your mouth and exhale through it, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight

  • Repeat this cycle three more times

  • Repeat this process at least twice a day

3. Diaphragmatic Breathing

This type of breathing, also called “abdominal breathing” or “belly breathing”, slows your heartbeat and can also lower blood pressure. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, researchers have found, and stimulates the activity of the vagal nerve, another important component of stress reduction.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent (if needed, place a pillow under your knees for support)

  • Put one hand on your upper chest and one below your rib cage, so you can feel your diaphragm move as you breathe

  • Inhale slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach move out against your hand, then tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale through your mouth

Practice this type of breathing for five to 10 minutes, three to four times a day. As you get more comfortable with this method, you can even place a book on your stomach to make it a little more challenging.

4. Alternate Nostril Breathing

This technique - where you rotate inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other - is a yogic breath control practice. It’s thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain, and, as a result, balances your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A 2013 study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing lowered their perceived stress levels. (3)

Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit straight up in a comfortable seat, your left palm comfortably in your lap

  • Lift your right hand to your face so that your pointer and middle fingers rest between your eyebrows

  • Close your eyes and inhale and exhale deeply through your nose

  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb while inhaling through your left nostril

  • Close your left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed for a moment, then open your right nostril and exhale slowly through your right side

  • Inhale through your right nostril, then hold both nostrils closed with your ring finger and thumb

  • Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through your left side

  • Repeat five to 10 times once a day, or as desired

5. Body Scan

This breathing technique involves doing deep breathing while focusing your attention on different parts of your body, from head to toe, starting with your forehead and ending at the muscles in your feet. Combat veterans with PTSD who performed it for 20 minutes each day at home for six weeks reported improvements in symptoms, according to a 2016 Oregon Health & Science University study. (4). It can be done lying down or sitting, whatever’s most comfortable for you.

Here’s how to do a body scan:

  • While sitting or lying down, close your eyes and pay attention to your body’s position—for example, the weight of your body against the chair or the floor

  • Take a deep breath, visualizing oxygen entering your body as you inhale and focusing on a sense of relaxation as you exhale

  • Focus on the sensations of your feet touching the floor or of your legs pressing against the chair

  • Now, work your way up to bring attention to other areas of your body. How does your back feel against the chair? Are your hands or stomach tense? (If so, try to relax them.) Loosen your shoulders and let your jaw relax

  • Take one more moment to notice your whole body, take a breath, and open your eyes

Initially, start with short periods of time of three to five minutes before working your way up to at least 20 minutes at least three times a week. The more you practice body scan, the more benefits you’ll enjoy.

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