Decrease stress by using your breath

Focusing on your breath is a powerful tool. Learn breathing techniques that ease anxiety, depression and other stress-related issues.

By Laura A. Peterson, R.N.
Laura A. Peterson, R.N.

During moments of stress, your thoughts may be drawn toward past regrets and worries about the future. Thankfully, you possess a readily accessible and free tool that can be used to manage stress — your breath.

Breath practices are a great way to become more in touch with your mind, body and spirit. Deep, conscious breathing (yogic breathing) can be used as an anchor to stay in the present moment. Your conscious breath can also be used to feel the energy of your emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones that you may try to escape.

During stressful moments, conscious breathing allows you to shift and release negative energy instead of storing it in your body. This is important, because stored-up energy often manifests as muscle tension and other physical ailments.

Breath work has other benefits, too. It can increase alertness and oxygen flow and allow your body to release toxins more readily. Although breathing is something your body naturally does, it's also a skill that can be sharpened.

Types of breath

The two basic types of breath are:

  • Chest breathing, which uses secondary muscles in your upper chest. Chest breathing is designed to be used in situations of great exertion, such as a sprint or race. During stressful situations, you may inadvertently resort to chest breathing. This can lead to tight shoulder and neck muscles and sometimes even headaches. Chronic stress can magnify these symptoms.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing, which comes from the body's dominant breathing muscle — the diaphragm. This type of breathing is more effective and efficient. It can lead to feelings of relaxation instead of tightness.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to reduce stress. To get started, try the exercise below alone or with a partner:

  • Get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your body and breath.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to fill with air, gently expanding out. Exhale by relaxing and releasing all of the air through your nose.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen, right below your navel, and the other hand on your upper chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your nose. Feel the coolness of the air as it enters in and the warmth as it flows out.
  • As you breathe in and out through your nose, focus on shifting your breath so that you can feel the rise and fall of your breathing in your abdomen more than in your chest. In other words, make the hand that rests on your abdomen move more than the hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose, sending it through the back of your throat and down to your belly. Let your abdomen slowly deflate as you exhale through your nose.
  • Take three more slow, deep breaths with conscious focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen. Continue to breathe fully and deeply, allowing and trusting the body as the breath slows and becomes more relaxed.

The benefits of deep breathing extend beyond in-the-moment stress relief. Many studies have found that deep, yogic breathing helps balance the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions, such as temperature control and bladder function. This may help ease symptoms of stress-related disorders and mental health conditions such as anxiety, general stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, reflect on this passage by Donna Farhi from "The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work" to help you understand the importance of your own breath: "Breathing is one of the simplest things in the world. We breathe in, we breathe out. When we breathe with real freedom, we neither grasp for nor hold on to the breath. ... The process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor we have for the way that we personally approach life, how we live our lives and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings us."

March 23, 2017 See more In-depth

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