Are you feeling tense? Pause for a moment, and take a deep breath. Next, slowly exhale. You may feel an immediate sense of calm. Breathing is a powerful tool when it comes to relieving stress and anxiety. You can use different breathing techniques to reduce stress no matter where you are. Most breathing exercises are easy to learn and take very little practice. Whether you are feeling overwhelmed at work or anxious in a public place, you can try a breathing exercise to help you feel relaxed and focus on the present.
In this post, we'll share simple and effective breathing exercises for anxiety and stress to help you stay calm throughout your day. You can fit these breathing exercises into a packed schedule while you're on the go or while you're home trying to unwind. Either way, the following techniques will help you restore a sense of calm and keep you grounded next time you face a stressor.
How Can Breathing Exercises Help With Stress and Anxiety?
Anxiety and stress affect the way we breathe in ways we may not even realize. Most of the time, we don't notice our breathing, but when we are anxious, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths from the chest. Your body naturally uses chest breathing during a high-stress activity such as intense physical exertion. However, you may resort to chest breathing when you feel anxious even if you're sitting still. When your body responds to a stressor, and you use your chest to breathe, your heart rate goes up, and you may feel tense or dizzy.
One of the most effective ways to reverse your body's stress response is to activate your natural relaxation response through deep breathing exercises. When you breathe deeply using your diaphragm rather than your chest, you send messages to your brain to relax. Your brain then tells other parts of your body to calm down. This results in a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure and an overall sense of reduced tension throughout the body.
Breathing exercises are simple, yet they often make a difference. You can practice many of these breathing exercises at work, home, school or just about anywhere you experience stress. Even if you've never practiced breathing exercises before, you can learn them easily and quickly.
8 Breathing Exercises for Stress and Anxiety
Just as stress affects everyone differently, deep breathing exercises for anxiety and stress also affect individuals in their own way. The best deep breathing exercise for you depends on what you feel comfortable with and how much it relaxes you. Try the following exercises and take note of how you feel. You may find that one technique is more effective than another or fits better with your lifestyle.
1. Belly Breathing
This belly breathing exercise is simple and a good way to practice deep breathing using your belly rather than taking shallow breaths from your chest. If you are at work, you can try this exercise while sitting in a comfortable chair. If you're home, you might try belly breathing while lying flat on the floor or a bed — whatever is most comfortable for you. To practice belly breathing, take these steps:
- Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest.
- Inhale slowly through your nose and allow your belly to push your hand out while keeping your chest still.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth as if you were whistling and feel your belly go in.
- Try to push all the air out as you exhale.
Do this exercise three to 10 times, and notice how you feel. Are you more relaxed? Belly breathing will help you concentrate on your breathing and take your mind off of worries while helping your body relax.
2. 4-7-8 Breathing
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise incorporates counting to help you focus on your breathing for an overall relaxing effect. Once you learn how to use this simple technique, you can do it anywhere. Here's how to do the 4-7-8 breathing exercise:
- Sit or lie down comfortably with one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply and slowly, silently counting to four as you inhale.
- Hold your breath and silently count from one to seven.
- Try to release all the air while silently counting from one to eight.
Repeat this exercise three times or until you feel relaxed. You may also try experimenting with different ratios if they work better for you. The point of this exercise is to keep a steady pace and focus on your breathing in the present moment.
3. Box Breathing
If you often find yourself in high-stress situations or want a way to manage anxiety, you might benefit from learning the box breathing technique. Box breathing, also called four-square breathing, is a straightforward technique that is easy to learn, yet it is highly effective at reducing anxiety and improving concentration. Although you can practice box breathing anywhere, it helps to sit with your back against a comfortable chair and your feet flat on the floor. To practice box breathing, you only need to complete the following four steps:
- Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four.
- Next, hold your breath while slowly counting to four.
- Slowly exhale for four seconds.
- Repeat the first three steps three more times, for a total of four times or until you feel calm.
You may also try this exercise counting to three instead of four if that is more comfortable for you. Once you get the hang of it, you might count to five or six.
4. Morning Breathing
Morning breathing is a sunny way to start the day. Try this morning breathing exercise first thing when you get up to relieve stiffness and clear your breathing passages. You can use this technique throughout the day to help relieve stress-related tension in your back. Here's how to do the morning breathing exercise:
- Stand up and bend forward from the waist with your knees slightly bent and your arms dangling loosely.
- Slowly inhale and return to a standing position by gradually rising and lifting your head last.
- Hold your breath for a few moments while standing.
- Slowly exhale as you return to the original bent position.
Morning breathing may be a great exercise if stress often affects your back or makes muscles in your body feel tense. When you're stressed, your nervous system keeps your body alert, which can lead to muscle tension. Morning breathing can help your muscles and your mind relax.
5. Easy Slow Breathing Exercise
Some people may experience increased anxiety when they breathe deeply. If deep breathing exercises make you feel more stressed, you can focus on breathing slowly instead and still enjoy the relaxing benefits of controlled breathing. Slow breathing is a useful technique for panic attacks because it helps slow the heart rate and calms the body. All you need to do to practice slow breathing for anxiety relief is:
- Breathe out slowly, steady and gently.
- Breathe out until all the air is released, using the least amount of force as possible.
The key to this exercise is to focus on the breath going out rather than the air taken in. You will naturally draw in more air as your exhalations get longer, so there is no need to think about inhaling. You can practice this simple slow breathing exercise any time you feel anxious, no matter where you are.
6. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Another easy way to relieve anxiety through breathing is to try the alternate nostril breathing exercise. Here's how:
- Place a finger over one nostril to close it.
- Breathe out once and then in once through the open nostril.
- Switch sides and go through another breath cycle.
Try this exercise as many times as needed until you feel calm.
7. Inflating a Balloon Exercise
This technique involves an element of visualization to help you turn your thoughts away from stressors. To get started, find a comfortable spot to sit. Next, take these simple steps:
- Close your eyes.
- Begin breathing through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Take a deep breath and imagine your belly is filling with air like a balloon.
- As you exhale, imagine the balloon is slowly deflating.
You might imagine the balloon in your favorite color to make the exercise even more relaxing. The purpose of this exercise is to help you breathe deeply using your diaphragm rather than breathing from your chest.
8. Easy Deep Breathing Exercise for Stress
If you often feel tense in your shoulders, back or other parts of your body, you may just need to take a few deep breaths. This exercise is very easy to remember, and you can use it anywhere and any time you feel overwhelmed. If you feel comfortable taking deep breaths, try the following steps:
- Breathe in as much air as you comfortably can through your nose.
- Release the air and focus on completely emptying your lungs.
- Repeat this exercise for a few breaths while releasing the tension in your shoulders, back or other stressed parts of your body.
This technique provides a quick calming effect and only takes a few moments to complete — perfect for a stressful day at work or while in an uncomfortable situation.
Breathing Exercise Tips
As you can see, the tools you need to relieve stress are within your reach, wherever you are. Simple breathing exercises are sometimes the best way to relieve stress and anxiety. Here are a few tips to increase the benefits of breathing exercises:
- If possible, choose a comfortable place to practice breathing exercises, like a soft chair or your bed.
- Try to do breathing exercises at the same time once or twice a day to get into a stress-reducing routine.
- Experiment with breathing exercises while doing a variety of activities such as shopping in a crowded store or doing housework.
- Avoid practicing relaxing techniques if you feel sleepy as you'll enjoy the effects more when you are alert and awake.
Lastly, try not to feel discouraged if you miss a few days or weeks of breathing exercises, and don't force it. These techniques are meant to help you relax when you feel tense or anxious. However, they do not always work for everyone all the time — and that's okay. It's most important you find a way to relieve stress or anxiety that works for you.
How to Tell If Breathing Exercises Are Effective
A breathing exercise is effective if you feel more relaxed after the exercise and can concentrate better. However, for some women, breathing exercises may not be effective and may actually increase anxiety. It's important not to force yourself if a breathing exercise makes you feel uncomfortable or more stressed. In such a case, you might speak with a mental health professional and discuss other ways to cope with stress or anxiety.
If you wish to measure the effects of a breathing exercise with results you can see, you can measure your heart rate. If a breathing exercise works, it will lower your heart rate as you go from feeling stressed to relaxed.
An easy way to measure your heart rate is to download a smartphone app. A heart rate measurement app may require you to place your finger on your phone's camera to measure your heart rate. If you try an app, you'll notice your heart rate will speed up as you inhale, and slow down when you breathe out. A normal heart rate varies from person to person, but in general, the average resting heart rate for a healthy woman ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute.
Contact Brookhaven Retreat for Additional Help Managing Anxiety
Breathing exercises offer an effective, easy way to reverse your body's stress response and make you feel instantly relaxed. However, breathing exercises do not eliminate the source of stress and may not be enough to create a sense of calm. If you feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, you might consider going to a mental health professional to help you discover coping strategies and determine the cause of your stress. Sometimes it's necessary to eliminate certain life stressors, make lifestyle changes or address underlying issues. The good news is you do not have to do it alone.
At Brookhaven Retreat, we offer women-only mental health treatment programs tailored to address anxiety in its many forms. The Lily Program® is an individualized comprehensive treatment program to address your specific mental health needs. In a nurturing, supportive environment, our compassionate staff will create a treatment program that is right for you. We can help you heal and move beyond anxiety, trauma, grief, social anxiety disorder or other mental health issues that are interfering with your life.
We understand that anxiety and stress can make life feel impossible sometimes, but there is hope whether you've dealt with anxiety for years or recently experienced a stressful event. To learn more about our treatment programs for anxiety and stress, contact us today.