Easy-to-use breathing techniques that relieve stress and help you relax
“Breathing exercises? That’s how I’m supposed to manage my anxiety? Yeah right.” I thought as I walked out of yet another therapist’s office.
That was 8 years ago. I never gave the breathing techniques that were recommended that night a second thought.
Until I went to another therapist last year. It was the strangest therapeutic experience I’ve ever had.
But it worked.
The therapist instructed me to lay down on my back on her floor which was covered with comfortable blankets and a pillow. Then she told me to close my eyes and begin taking deep, slow breaths, first inhaling through my nose and then breathing out of my mouth, making a whoosh sound.
I began to feel light-headed and my jaw started shaking, my teeth clattering against each other. “Is this normal?” I whispered. “Keep breathing,” she said.
So I did. She tapped just below my rib cage, then again on my forehead and the top of my chest.
Suddenly, a flood of painful memories came back to me. I felt several emotions, and for the first time in my life, I quickly named them in my mind. Anger, shame, sadness, remorse, embarrassment.
I began crying uncontrollably. And then… it was over.
I left her office feeling lighter. I had begun to release all of the baggage I had been toting around with me for years – something I had never been able to do before. And it all started with breathing. Go figure!
I’ve learned that breathing is our secret superpower. It’s more powerful than you might think. In India, they call breathing “pranayama” which means “control of the life force”.
In this article we’ll explore if you’re breathing “wrong” (who knew that was possible?), why breathing is one of our best tools against stress and anxiety, and which breathing techniques are most effective (and simple, too!).
At the end of the post, be sure to get your free copy of the “Breathing Exercises Cheat Sheet” so you can refer to it whenever you need calm yourself down or relax.
Are you Breathing Wrong?
Have you ever noticed how you breathe normally?
While I was driving in the car one day I caught myself holding my breath (I know I tend to do this a lot). I continued to breathe as I normally do but paid closer attention to it.
I was taking short shallow breaths in through my nose, exhaling briefly out through my nose, and then I’d just stop breathing for a few seconds. And it’s not just me – a lot of us breathe like this without even realizing it.
Why is this a problem?
Breathing like this is similar to the breathing we do when our fight or flight response is triggered. It’s keeping us in a perpetual state of stress!
This short video shows another way that we tend to breathe which is also not good for us, and the correct way to breathe.
The Benefits of Breathing Techniques
You can see how important breathing is to our well-being. In addition to breathing healthily on a normal basis, you can also use specific breathing techniques to your benefit.
Breathing exercises can help you sleep better, think more clearly, and decrease anxiety.
Other benefits include:
- Easing physical pain
- Better blood flow
- More energy
- Better posture
- Less inflammation (makes your body less acidic)
- Helps your body detox more efficiently
- Improves overall digestion
- Relaxes your mind and body
Amazing what breathing does for us, right?!
Breathing Techniques & Stress
Of all the things that breathing can help us with, stress is probably the biggest. We all experience stress, sometimes to a debilitating degree. When we’re in a state of stress it almost feels like there’s no escaping it. It’s awful!
One of the best ways to handle stress is through breathing techniques, also called the “Relaxation Response”.
Psychology Today explains the Relaxation Response as “your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.”
When we feel like we’re under a lot of pressure, our “fight or flight” response kicks in. Our fight or flight response is important because it keeps us safe from danger. But many times, this response occurs when we’re not in any actual danger.
This isn’t very fun because it elicits unpleasant reactions, such as tense muscles, upset stomach, increased heart rate, and quick, shallow breathing. In short, it can cause a panic attack.
The Relaxation Response counteracts a lot of this. There are a number of ways to trigger the Relaxation Response, and breathing is perhaps the easiest way to do it. After all, our breath is always available to us!
7 Simple Breathing Techniques for Relaxation & Stress Relief
These 7 breathing techniques are the easiest for beginners to get started with.
When using each of these exercises, make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable position with your spine, neck, and head aligned. Relax and notice how cool your breath feels on your inhales, and how warm it feels on your exhales.
Make sure you’re breathing with your stomach and not your chest. You’ll be able to tell by placing a hand on your chest and your other hand on your stomach. If your chest moves when you breathe, relax your chest, and focus on breathing with your stomach for a few minutes.
Then you’re ready to begin!
Counting your breaths is the simplest to do! Here’s how to do it:
Take a normal breath in through your nose and then out through your nose. That counts as 1 breath.
Each time you take a breath, count to the next number until you get to 9. It’ll look like this:
Breath in, breath out (silently say 1)
Breath in, breath out (silently say 2)
Breath in, breath out (silently say 3)
And so on until you get to 9.
There’s a free online tool that you can use that will help you focus as you breathe. I tried it out and relaxed me so much that I could have taken a nap! You can access the tool here.
A lot of times when we’re stressed we tend to take long inhales and really short exhales. This just intensifies the stress we’re feeling. The purpose of this breathing exercise is to pair longer exhales with your inhales.
Essentially what you’re doing is making your exhale twice as long as your inhale. Here’s how:
Make sure you’re breathing through your nose. Start by deepening your exhale. Contract your stomach and push any extra air from your lungs. When you inhale, relax and expand your stomach. Then exhale for 2 seconds and inhale for 1 second. Repeat.
You can exhale and inhale for longer counts as long as you keep the 2-to-1 ration. So a 4 second exhale and a 2 second inhale or a 6 second exhale and a 3 second inhale would work as well.
The Equal Breathing exercise is great for getting to sleep, and it’s another simple one.
All you have to do is Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, and exhale through your nose for 4 seconds; repeat. You can increase the length of time that you’re inhaling and exhaling as long as you keep the counts equal.
This is a breathing exercise that military uses so you can imagine that it works at calming your nerves! It’s the perfect exercise for when you’re extremely stressed.
To do the tactical breathing technique, inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds, and then hold for 2 seconds. Repeat.
4-7-8 breathing is not only great for calming you down, but also getting you to sleep. For that reason, you’ll want to keep this technique for times when you’re laying down.
To do 4-7-8 breathing, inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.
If you have trouble holding your breath for that long, you can do it for a shorter amount of time by cutting the seconds in half – inhale 2 secs, hold for 3.5 secs, exhale 4 secs.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing technique not only helps to calm you down but also gives you a burst of positive energy. It’s a good exercise to have in your back pocket for those times when you need to feel more awake and focused.
For alternate nostril breathing, hold your thumb over your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril. When you are about to exhale, quickly release your thumb and place your ring finger on your left nostril so that you are exhaling through your right nostril only.
Do this for 1-2 minutes, then switch sides.
Ok, I’ll be completely candid here – you’re going to feel ridiculous doing this one! On the bright side, if you can’t get the breathing to work, you’ll relieve stress by laughing at yourself. 🙂
When I tried this one it actually scared my 3-year-old and he started crying! So you’ll definitely want to be alone when you do this exercise.
For Lion’s Breath, sit cross-legged on the floor and place your palms on your knees. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. When you exhale, open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue so that it’s reaching toward your chin while saying “ha”. (I told you!) Do this 6 times.
Breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have for fighting stress and anxiety, and it’s always right at our fingertips. It really is a secret superpower!
Breathing exercises are simple and provide an insane amount of benefits for our physical and mental health. Make sure you pay attention to how you’re normally breathing, too. By breathing properly all the time you may be able to prevent yourself from going into a state of stress at all!
As far as the breathing exercises above, I suggest that you try all of them to figure out which exercises help you relax the most and in which situations.
Grab the free “Breathing Exercises Cheat Sheet”, print it out, and refer to it when you need to use a breathing technique to reduce stress and relax!
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