Did you know that you’re carrying two of the most powerful stress management tools with you everywhere you go? It’s true! I’m talking about your lungs, and something that we’re all doing constantly … breathing. It can seem ridiculously simple to talk about something you’ve been doing since the moment you were born, but so many of us are not maximizing the power of breathing for our health and our stress management. Today, I’ll give you 4 breathing exercises for stress management, and teach you how you can use them at any time throughout the day.
How breathing can help us manage stress
First, let’s talk about why breathing can be a powerful stress management tool. The obvious benefit of focusing on your breath is that you stop focusing on whatever is stressing you out, slow down your thoughts, and intentionally try to calm down your body. This benefit is huge!
But the benefits go even deeper! Have you heard of the vagus nerve? This is a nerve that runs from the gut to the brain, plays important roles in functions like digestion, breathing, heart rate, and mood regulation, and is often called the “relaxation nerve.” It passes right through your diaphragm, and it is activated with deep breathing! There is a clear physiological response to deep breathing, far and above just “feeling good” in the moment. It truly does alter our stress response!
How most of us breathe
Yet, most of us spend most of the time engaged in shallow breathing. We’re not breathing deeply, filling our lungs, activating our diaphragms, and stimulating the vagus nerve. Believe it or not, spending all day here stresses us out! Think about a time when you’ve been scared – you’re likely almost panting because you’re breathing so quickly and shallowly.
When we’re shallowly breathing, we’re focusing more on the inhale. This activates the sympathetic branch of our nervous system and makes us more primed for “fight or flight.” Many elite athletes use a technique of focusing on quick, shallow inhales to almost hyperventilate and engage the sympathetic branch to prepare them for competition.
In our daily lives, though, this is very unhelpful! Instead, we want to focus on the exhale. Lengthening the exhale engages the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (also called “rest and digest”), putting us in a more calm state and making us more resilient to stress. I’m about to share these breathing exercises for stress that will help you lengthen the exhale!
4 breathing exercises for stress management
I love using all of these at various times to help me cope with stress. Do any of them cause my problems to magically go away and rainbows to spring out of the ground? Of course not. But, over time, do I feel the impact of this form of autonomic regulation? Yes, absolutely.
I encourage you to try each one over the course of this week and see which one feels best to you, then to try to incorporate it for just a minute or two per day for a week. When you do, do you notice improved stress resilience? That’s a small price to pay, right? I hope you’ll incorporate these more regularly!
- 4-7-8 breathing. 4-7-8 breathing was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, who called it “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” When done repeatedly, it lowers heart rate and blood pressure, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and can even lower cortisol! Here’s how to do it:
- Exhale fully
- With lips sealed and tip of tongue touching the backs of your top teeth, inhale through your nose for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 7
- Exhale through your mouth with a whooshing sound for a count of 8
- Repeat the entire cycle 4 times, working eventually up to 8 times
- Box breathing. Because of the repetitive counting nature, box breathing can be useful in shutting down your brain, like when you feel a mild sense of panic coming on or when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here’s how to do it:
- Inhale for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 4
- Exhale for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 4
- Repeat 4 times, or as much as you’d like
- 1-10 breathing. I consider this one a form of meditation, because it helps me stay focused on the present and train my brain not to wander as much. It is truly a challenge for me to do this one, which is why I like it! Here’s how to do it:
- close your eyes
- inhale and exhale deeply at whatever speed you’d like. The inhale and exhale is 1.
- inhale and exhale deeply at whatever speed you’d like. The inhale and exhale is 2.
- Repeat, while staying focused on your breath, until you reach 10
- If you’re like me, you’ll make it to 2 or 3 and your mind will wander. You may still be breathing deeply, but you’re focusing on something other than the breath. If this happens, non-judgmentally return to 1, and try again to get to 10
- Nasal breathing. This one is something to work on constantly! James Nestor’s popular book, Breath discusses how our breathing has degenerated over centuries, and how mouth breathing leads to everything from misshapen heads to poorer oxygen efficiency to sleep apnea. (Incidentally, as I was at a conference a few weeks ago, I took a breathwork class, and at the end, the instructor said, “we have a superstar in our presence … James Nestor!” It was a class of only about 20 people and I hadn’t previously recognized him, but I felt as if I were in the presence of a health celebrity! Here’s more about the conferences I attended.) Increasing the amount of time we spend breathing through our noses, rather than our mouths, can greatly improve our health. Here’s how to do it:
- Simple! Every time you think of it (driving, in a meeting, writing emails, watching TV), simply shift from mouth breathing to nose breathing. It will become more natural over time!
There’s one more breathing style to discuss, but it doesn’t yet make my list of top 4 because I’m still very new to the practice. Wim Hof is a fascinating character (also known as “The Iceman,” he holds records such as the farthest swim under ice – 118.6 feet – and the fastest half marathon barefoot on ice and snow – 2:16:34. He’s also held his breath for 6 minutes!). The breathing practice he developed (called, appropriately, the Wim Hof Breathing Method) is designed to help improve autonomic control and increase stress resilience, just like the previous ones. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit comfortably
- Inhale deeply through the nose, and exhale without force through the mouth. Do this 30-40 times.
- Inhale one last time, then let the air out and hold the breath out as long as you comfortably can without forcing.
- When you need to breathe again, hold the in breath for 15 seconds.
Now it’s your turn … Do you practice any breathing exercises? Which of these are you most excited to try?