4 Ways to Breathe Your Stress AwayAug 01, 2023
Stress can make us feel anxious and overwhelmed. But did you know you can “trick” your body into feeling calmer just by breathing? Just try these four techniques.
Does stress make you feel anxious and overwhelmed? Do you ever get racing thoughts, or have difficulty concentrating on tasks when you're stressed out? You're not alone. These are all common side effects of stress.
Though these side effects are unpleasant and can make our daily lives more difficult, they’re also symptoms that can be managed with the right tools. Today, we’ll teach you a few essential stress-relieving breathing exercises, so you can feel less anxious and more focused even when stressed.
The science behind breathing for stress relief.
When we feel stressed, our bodies enter "fight or flight" mode. Our nervous system elevates our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure in response. This leads us to experience heightened anxiety, feelings of depression, difficulty concentrating, and a number of other unpleasant feelings we associate with stress.
To help our bodies naturally adjust to handle those feelings, we can focus on encouraging our nervous system's relaxation response instead. One of the simplest ways to do so is by controlling our breathing. You don’t just breathe faster when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed; when you breathe slower, you actually “trick” your body into feeling calmer.
With that in mind, here are a few simple breathing exercises you can try to alleviate stress.
4 breath techniques to try
4-7-8 breathing helps you control the speed of your breaths. It’s our go-to breathing technique for promoting a feeling of calm.
- Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds.
- Repeat the process for at least 4 breath cycles.
The 4-7-8 technique works by extending the time we spend exhaling, which encourages our nervous system’s relaxation response.
Box breathing also helps you regulate and even out the speed of your breathing. It focuses on four equally-timed breaths (imagine drawing a square in your mind).
- Inhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold the breath for 4 seconds.
- Exhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold for 4 seconds.
- Repeat for at least 4 breath cycles.
Box breathing functions much like 4-7-8 breathing, but may be easier for some people because it doesn’t require you to hold your breath as long.
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing can make your breathing more regular and reduce your heart rate.
- Exhale completely.
- Press your finger or thumb to the side of your nose, gently closing your left nostril. Inhale through your right nostril.
- Move your finger to close your right nostril, exhaling through your left nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril, then move your finger to close it. Exhale through your right nostril.
- Repeat the pattern for up to 5 minutes.
If you have difficulty sitting still or focusing on breathing exercises, the addition of physical touch in this technique may help.
Belly breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) is another calming breathing exercise that can help you focus on your breaths. It also helps strengthen your diaphragm muscle, which improves the overall efficiency of your breathing.
- Lie down on the floor or in bed.
- Place one hand palm down on your upper chest, and the other hand palm down on your stomach, just below your ribcage.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. (You should feel your stomach press against your hand as you inhale, while the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.)
- Tighten your stomach muscles. Then, exhale through pursed lips.
- Repeat the process.
Since belly breathing is best performed lying down, it’s a great breathing option to incorporate into your before-bed or wake up routine. Remember, you don’t have to wait until you feel stressed to practice your breathing exercises. Feeling calmer can help you avoid getting overwhelmed by stress in the first place.
More tips for breathing and stress
- Controlling your breathing is more challenging for some people than others. But don’t get discouraged if you can’t match the patterns in these techniques right away. The more you practice, the easier and more natural it will feel to you.
- No matter what technique you try, never hold your breath so long you feel lightheaded or in danger of passing out.
- Breathing techniques can work in tandem with many other stress-relieving activities, such as meditation, yoga, or journaling. Try pairing a few together to maximize their effects!
- If you are able to slow and control your breaths, but still experience a racing heart rate or significant feelings of anxiety for an extended period of time, talk to your doctor.
Breathe in calm, breathe out stress
Because stress has a cumulative effect on our bodies and brains, even the smallest reduction in stress can greatly improve our lives and outlook. Whether you incorporate breathing techniques into your morning meditation or bedtime routine, or just practice them when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, it’s important for us to feel prepared to handle stress. When we know we can adjust our patterns of behavior and move through stress, we feel like we’re in control of our stress, instead of letting stress control us.
Want one-on-one expert advice on managing stress and optimizing your life?
With the right techniques, you can embrace stress, improve your lifestyle, and optimize your cognitive health. If you know it’s time to not just work around your health challenges, but to do something about them, check out My RBI Academy. We’ll send you new tips and tricks for improving your cognitive health each month, all backed by our years of medical expertise and grounded in our holistic six pillar approach.