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Why breathing helps stress



Have you ever noticed how you breathe in different circumstances? The next time you feel relaxed, notice your breathing and how your body feels. Conversely, notice how you breathe when you are rushing or anxious and the impact that is having on your body. 


Breathing works to manage our stress because changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation. That means slowing your heart rate and stimulating the nerve which runs from your brain stem to your abdomen. That nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities - in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of our “fight or flight” responses. Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better. And your ability to think rationally returns.


Breathing is also effective because it can be very difficult for most of us to talk our way out of strong emotions like stress, anxiety, or anger. Just think about how ineffective it is when someone tells you to “calm down” when you are feeling extreme stress. When we are in that highly stressed state, our prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking — is impaired so logic rarely helps us regain control. This can make it hard to think straight or be emotionally intelligent. But breathing techniques can help you gain some mastery over your mind.


Research also shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, so changing how we breathe can also change how we feel. For example, when you feel joy, your breathing will be regular, deep and slow. If you feel anxious or angry, your breathing will be irregular, short, fast, and shallow. When you follow breathing patterns associated with different emotions, you’ll actually begin to feel those corresponding emotions.


Two recent American studies, one run by Yale and the other by the University of Arizona, have found that a breathing exercise was most effective for both immediate and long-term stress reduction.


There are lots of breathing exercises you can do to help relax. So give it a go and notice the difference it makes. Belly breathing is simple to learn and easy to do if you have never done breathing exercises before. 


Belly breathing

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

After you have mastered belly breathing, you may want to try a more advanced breathing exercise, for example 4-7-8 breathing.


4-7-8 breathing also uses belly breathing to help you relax. Again, you can do this exercise either sitting or lying down.

  1. To start, put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest as in the belly breathing exercise.
  2. Take a deep, slow breath from your belly, and silently count to 4 as you breathe in.
  3. Hold your breath, and silently count from 1 to 7.
  4. Breathe out completely as you silently count from 1 to 8. Try to get all the air out of your lungs by the time you count to 8.
  5. Repeat 3 to 7 times or until you feel calm.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.