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Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress and Feel Calm

We all know the feeling of needing to take a deep breath when life gets overwhelming.

Structured breathing exercises, including deep breaths and other breathing techniques, offer more than just momentary relaxation; they hold the key to improved energy, focus, and even physical performance.

In this article, we delve into eight powerful, evidence-backed breathing techniques, including diaphragmatic and belly breathing, that can transform your mental and physical health.

These simple and time-efficient exercises, which involve taking deep breaths, can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. Whether you’re seeking calmness or an energy boost, these breathing exercises can help you achieve your health goals.

I hope this helps you to discover the power of breathwork, including belly and diaphragmatic breathing, and discover techniques that can enhance your overall well-being.

The Benefits Breathwork

Breathing isn’t just about inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide; it’s a complex physiological process that directly impacts your nervous system and brain function.

By consciously altering your breath, you can regulate your mood, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep quality.

The autonomic nervous system, which manages involuntary bodily functions like heartbeat and digestion, is divided into two subsystems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former is your “fight or flight” response to stress or danger, while the latter governs rest and recovery.

Incorporating conscious, structured breathing exercises into your daily routine can help balance these two systems, improving your overall health and well-being.

Understanding Risks and Precautions While the benefits of breathwork are immense, it’s important to note that it may not be suitable for everyone. Certain health conditions may be aggravated by deep breathing. 

Always consult a healthcare professional before starting a new practice, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions.

Let’s delve into the specifics of these eight breathing exercises, which can help you achieve various health goals from relaxation and stress reduction to improved focus and energy enhancement.

Breathing Exercises You Need to Try

Here’s a list of deep breathing techniques you can practice to gain the above benefits.

Take your time and find the deep breathing exercise that works best for you, and be sure to set aside at least five minutes each day to focus on breathing.

The 4-7-8 Method

Best for: Help you fall asleep, calming the mind

4-7-8 breathing technique infographic

Based on the research by Dr. Andrew Weil, this technique aims to reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

This breathing exercise is designed to help you slow down your breathing and relax your body, helping you drift off to sleep.

It activates your parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for resting and digesting, inducing what scientists refer to as the physiological sigh.

This deep sigh is a natural part of our breathing patterns and serves to regulate the amount of gas exchange that occurs in the lungs, effectively increasing the efficiency of each breath and promoting relaxation.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by breathing in through the nose for a count of four.

  2. Then hold your breath for seven seconds before breathing out slowly through the mouth for a count of eight.

  3. Keep breathing in this pattern, breathing in for four counts, holding your breath for seven counts, and breathing out for eight counts.

When to use the 4-7-8 method:

The 4-7-8 method is a great breathing exercise to do before bedtime. It can help you relax and get in the right headspace for falling asleep. It’s also something I’ve used before important meetings and presentations to keep me calm and focused.

Pursed Lip Breathing

Best for: Managing shortness of breath, improving lung ventilation

Pursed lip breathing is a simple yet effective technique often used by those suffering from respiratory conditions like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). However, it can also be beneficial for anyone experiencing shortness of breath or looking to improve their lung ventilation.

This technique involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly through pursed lips, similar to blowing out a candle. The goal is to slow down the rate of breathing, helping to open up the airways for longer and increase the amount of oxygen that enters the lungs.

Pursed lip breathing can also activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles.

  2. Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of two. Try to keep your mouth closed.

  3. Pucker or “purse” your lips as if you’re about to blow on something.

  4. Exhale slowly by blowing air through your pursed lips for a count of four.

  5. Repeat this process, inhaling for a count of two and exhaling for a count of four.

When to use pursed lip breathing:

Pursed lip breathing can be used throughout the day, especially during strenuous activities that may cause shortness of breath. It’s a great technique to use when climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects, or exercising. It can also be used during moments of anxiety or panic to help slow down the breathing rate and promote a sense of calm. For those with respiratory conditions, it’s a useful tool to manage symptoms and improve overall lung function.

Alternate Nostril Breathing 

Best for: Releasing stress, calming the mind and body

Alternate nostril breathing exercise

Alternate nostril breathing is one of the most popular exercises and has been used in yoga and meditation for centuries. The technique helps to harmonize breathing, balance the left and right sides of the brain and reduce stress.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by sitting in a comfortable position with your back straight.

  2. Fold your index finger and middle finger into your palm.

  3. Place your thumb on one nostril to close it off before inhaling deeply through the other nostril.

  4. Then, close off the other nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the first one.

  5. Repeat this breathing exercise for a few minutes before switching sides and breathing in and out through the opposite nostrils.

When to use alternate nostril breathing:

Try alternate nostril breathing when you’re feeling stressed out or anxious. The breathing pattern helps to create a sense of balance and calm your body, heart rate, and mind.

Lion’s Breath Technique

Best for: Releasing tension and eliminating toxins

Lion's breath Breathing exercise

Lion’s breath is a breathing exercise that helps to reduce stress, clear the mind and release tension from the body. It also helps eliminate toxins from your body, giving you more energy and helping to improve overall health.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by breathing in deeply through the nose for a count of four.

  2. Then, with your tongue out, exhale forcefully through your throat with a lion-like roar. Feel free to make any sound you like – this is all about releasing any built-up tension.

  3. Keep breathing in and out, breathing in for four counts, roaring out (or making any sound you prefer) with each breath out.

  4. Repeat this breathing exercise until you feel more relaxed and released from any built-up stress or tension.

When to use lion’s breath:

This breathing exercise is excellent for releasing any built-up tension and eliminating toxins from the body. Try it when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, or need to clear your head. It’s also a great practice when you need to feel extra confident about something you’re about to do.

Diaphragmatic Breathing technique

Best for: Stress reduction, improving lung function

Abdominal Breathing exercise

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing,” is a technique that encourages full oxygen exchange in the body, beneficial for slowing the heartbeat and stabilizing blood pressure. It’s a natural and calming way to breathe that is often used in mindfulness practices and yoga.

This technique is based on the understanding that the diaphragm, a large muscle located between the chest and abdomen, plays a crucial role in respiration. When you breathe diaphragmatically, you’ll notice your belly rising and falling, which is a sign of deep, calming breaths.

It activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s rest and digest response, promoting relaxation and stress reduction.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Start by sitting comfortably, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head, and neck relaxed.

  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.

  3. Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.

  4. Continue to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls.

When to use abdominal breathing:

Diaphragmatic breathing is a versatile technique that can be used throughout the day to manage stress and maintain a calm state of mind. It’s particularly useful during moments of heightened anxiety or stress. It can also be used as part of a mindfulness or meditation practice to help focus the mind and connect with the body. It’s also beneficial for those with respiratory conditions to improve lung function and overall respiratory health.

Box Breathing (Square Breathing)

Best for: Calming down, relieving stress

Box breathing (also known as square breathing) is a simple exercise that can be done anywhere. It helps to relax the body and mind, reduce stress and clear your head. Like the 4 7 8 breathing technique, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping you to feel rested.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by breathing in for four counts.

  2. Then hold your breath for four counts before breathing out slowly for four counts.

  3. Finally, hold your breath again (with empty lungs) for another four counts.

  4. Continue with this breathing exercise, breathing in for four counts, holding the breath for four counts, breathing out for four counts, and then once again holding the breath (with lungs empty) for another four seconds.

  5. Continue repeating this pattern until you feel more relaxed and focused.

When to use box breathing:

Box breathing is a great breathing exercise for calming down and reducing stress. Try it whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious and need to clear your head.

Double Breathing

Best for: Increasing alertness

double breathing technique

The Double Breathing technique, or Double Inhale Breathing Technique, is an exercise that helps to increase alertness and get you into a relaxed yet focused state.

This technique involves a specific pattern of inhalation where you take two quick breaths in succession before a longer, more controlled exhalation.

The first quick inhalation fills the lower lungs, and the second one fills the upper lungs, providing the body with a large amount of fresh, oxygenated air.

This unique breathing pattern can stimulate the nervous system, increase mental clarity, and enhance overall energy levels.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by breathing in for two counts and breathing out for four counts.

  2. Then, breathe in for four counts and breathe out for eight counts.

  3. Finally, breathe in for six counts and out for twelve counts.

  4. Repeat this breathing exercise three times and then switch breathing in and breathing out for the counts.

  5. Notice how alert and focused you become with each breath!

When to use double breathing:

Double breathing is an excellent exercise to use when you need an energy boost, such as before an exam or work. It helps to increase alertness and focus, allowing you to be more productive and get things done.

Bellows Breath

Best for: Quick energizing breathing

This breathing exercise is perfect for when you need a quick pick-me-up and energy boost. It helps to energize the body and invigorate the mind.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by breathing in quickly through both nostrils, filling your lungs completely with air.

  2. Then exhale quickly out of the nose as if you were snorting out air like an animal.

  3. Repeat this breathing exercise until you feel more energized and alert.

When to use bellows breath:

Use bellows breath when you feel tired or sluggish instead of reaching for a cup of coffee or energy drink. Use it anytime you need an extra boost of energy throughout the day.

Bellows Breath: Harvard Health Publishing

Slow Deep Breathing

Best for: Reducing headaches and migraines

Slow deep breathing is a powerful exercise that can relieve tension, calm the mind and reduce headaches and migraines. It works by using breath control helping the body relax and relieving stress, tension, and anxiety.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Begin by breathing in slowly through the nose for a count of four.

  2. Then breathing out slowly through the mouth for a count of eight.

  3. Continue breathing in and out with this steady rhythm until you feel relaxed and your headache or migraine has eased.

When to use slow deep breathing:

This is an excellent way to relieve tension and reduce headaches and migraines. Try it when you feel a headache or migraine coming on or need to relax and de-stress. 

The Takeaway

The takeaway from this exploration of powerful breathing techniques is that our breath, with its many healing powers, is an underutilized resource for enhancing well-being. Implementing these techniques into your daily routine can significantly improve your health.

Let me know in the comments which technique was your favorite, the benefits you experienced, and other deep breathing exercises you’d recommend.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be construed as professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of any mental health condition, we strongly advise consulting with a qualified healthcare professional.

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