Breathing sustains life. It sends oxygen to your lungs and brain. It keeps the heart pumping. It’s essential to life. And, as a bonus for those living in today’s busy society, controlled and mindful breathing also helps you manage stress. Everyone who is subject to today’s busy and stressful way of life could benefit from learning breathing exercises for stress management.
By taking control of your breath, you can reset the stress response in your brain. Slow, deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system (which is in charge of the fight-or-flight response) back into rest mode and lowers blood pressure. For those who suffer from anxiety, deep breathing has been shown to provide relief by relaxing muscles.
If you’re ready to take the reins of your stress, these breathing exercises will help lower your stress and make tense situations manageable.
Breathing Exercise For Stress #1: Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing is the simple act of bringing full focus to your breath. Many of us find it difficult to clear our mind and center our attention to our breath. Having a guide helps, and there’s no better guide than world-renowned gurus such as Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hanh.
The following exercises are guided by Hanh and Chopra, who are both prominent mindfulness leaders.
Hanh helps beginners by addressing what mindfulness is and then leads them in a calming breathing exercise. Listen to this guided meditation to learn.
Chopra specifically uses mindful breathing to reduce stress. His guided meditation is perfect for those high on stress but low on patience to learn guided meditation.
Breathing Exercise For Stress #2: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most popular breathing techniques for stress reduction. It is an exercise that is done by contracting the diaphragm, a large muscle located just below your lungs. This abdominal breathing exercise is also known as “belly breathing.” This is one of the easier breathing exercises to engage in since it’s very close to our regular breath.
Beginners should start by laying down on the floor with a yoga mat underneath. With more experience, practitioners can eventually do this exercise while sitting.
For now, start on the ground so you can feel your stomach rising and lowering. Place one of your hands on your stomach, just below your ribs. Then place your other hand on your chest.
Take a deep breath in through your nostrils, letting the hand on your stomach be pushed out. Your chest stays stationary.
Now breathe out through your lips, pursing them. Gently push your stomach inwards with your hand to help exhale the breath.
Repeat this inhale and exhale six to 10 times per minute for 10 minutes every day. You’ll find that your heart rate and blood pressure decrease pretty quickly.
Breathing Exercise FOR STRESS #3: Equal Breathing
The equal breathing exercise is a great relaxation technique for those who need a quick stress relief. The technique focuses on matching the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale.
You can do this exercise anywhere and anytime, but it’s especially effective if you’re trying to wind down at the end of the night, right before bed.
Start by finding a comfortable position (sitting, standing or lying down). Now inhale through your nose for a count of four, then exhale through your nose for a count of four. Repeat these matching breaths until you feel calm. It may take some time to get used to inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
Once you have the basics of this exercise down, see if you can go for six to eight counts per breath.
Breathing Exercise FOR STRESS #4: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a simple breathing technique found in the practice of yoga. Generally, mouth breathing happens during a state of stress. One of the reasons that this exercise works is because it forces you to breathe through the nostrils instead of your mouth.
To start, find a comfortable place to sit. Make sure you are sitting straight with relaxed limbs. Take a moment to inhale deeply and close your eyes. Let your hands relax in your lap.
When you’re ready, bring your right hand’s ring finger up and press it against your left nostril. Then take a deep breath from the right nostril. After your inhale, place your right thumb over your right nostril. Release your ring finger on your left nostril and exhale.
Keep your right thumb over your right nostril and now inhale from the left nostril. Then take your right ring finger and close your left nostril. Take your thumb off your right nostril and exhale that breath.
Repeat this pattern until your breath has relaxed.
Breathing Exercise FOR STRESS #5: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This stress management breathing exercise involves your whole body. It focuses on releasing tension in your muscles while simultaneously allowing you to tune into your breath.
You’ll start by lying down. Get comfortable by placing a pillow underneath your neck and/or throwing a blanket over your body if in a cool room. Breathe in and out for a moment, making sure to bring your attention to your breath and the present moment.
Starting at either the bottom of your body (feet to head) or the top of the body (head to feet), you will tense each major muscle group moving up. Every time you squeeze a muscle, breathe in. Every time you release a muscle, breathe out.
In this example, we’ll do a quick progressive muscle relaxation that starts at the bottom of your body.
Squeeze your toes in to tense up your foot while you inhale. Try to hold it for 10 seconds. Then release that tension as you exhale. Now inhale and clench your leg muscles by either pointing your toes or squeezing your thighs. Exhale and relax.
Move up to your torso area. Contract your abdominals as you inhale. Then relax the muscles with your exhale.
Now move up to your chest and upper back. Tighten these areas by squeezing your shoulders towards your chest. Exhale and release after a few seconds.
Once you get to your arms and hands, take a moment to focus on how they feel in their current state. Now squeeze your fists together and let it help you tighten the rest of your arm muscles. Inhale and hold for 10 seconds. Exhale and relax the muscle.
Finally, tighten the muscles in your head and face. Follow this order: neck and throat, face, back of the head, and top of the head. If it’s helpful, you can use your hand to help contract the muscle on top of your head.
The last muscle to engage will be your eyes. Squeeze the muscles around your eyes by closing them very tightly. Then release.
For a more comprehensive look into progressive muscle relaxation and more activities to help with this exercise, check out our complete guide.
If you only have 15 minutes to spare, you can use this modified version of progressive muscle relaxation. In this guided exercise, a nun from Hanh’s monastery guides your breathing and helps you release tension on the go.
Breathing Exercise FOR STRESS #6: Visualized Breathing
While visualized breathing seems easy upfront, it can be challenging as we aren’t used to emptying our minds.
This exercise is best done with the guiding hand of a coach, therapist or helpful recording. Start by thinking of a few happy places you’ve seen or images that you associate with relaxation. Maybe think of a peaceful beach, being in a green field with blue skies, or a warm cup of tea.
Now get into a comfortable position where you can close your eyes. As you close your eyes, breathe in deeply and breathe out. Focus on the positive images. If you feel your mind slowly drifts away from the happy images, just gently draw it back to the images or refocus on your breath.
You’ll find many options for guided visualization on YouTube; the best guides will focus on your breath and the energy of each inhale and exhale.
If you’re looking for a specific guide to help quell anxiety or fear, try this guided breathing exercise from Hanh. It’s quick and works to push away the fear and replace it with confidence.
For those who find it too difficult to close your eyes and imagine relaxation, try Spire’s visual breath guide. When your breathing becomes tense, Spire sends you a gentle notification to remind you to breathe and will help you breathe with a hypnotic visual cue.
We've added a new feature to our app. Check out the Visual Breath Guide. Can you use your breath to turn all the dots green?
Posted by Spire on Thursday, January 26, 2017
We encounter stress every day. Luckily, we have a powerful tool which helps to deal with stress to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of living our best life: our breath. Practice these breathing exercises to find the stress relief you deserve.