Why it matters
Chronic stress is a massive problem that often goes overlooked. Many of us feel stress in the back of our minds until the moment we fall asleep. We juggle so much in our daily lives that it’s hard to think of anything else.
When we get stressed, our body does the only thing it knows to help and tries to prepare us for whatever is putting us at risk. It activates the fight or flight response, causing increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure. This physiological response has helped to keep our ancestors alive as long as humans have walked the earth, but our apparent dangers are a little more complicated than they once were. Instead of fighting off sabre-toothed tigers, we have deadlines and social pressures to contend with.
This is precisely why it’s essential to know how to calm ourselves down when our bodies kick up the fear response. When we breathe deeply we are essentially telling our body that the crisis has been averted- no need to panic. The breathing exercises suggested in this guide are straightforward and only take up a few minutes, quickly giving you the boost you need to face the day.
Chest vs Abdominal Breathing
People tend to fall into two different types of breathing patterns:
Abdominal Breathing: This is the way most of us breathe when we are in a relaxed stage of sleep, as it’s slower and steady. This breathing pattern is deep and even and engages your diaphragm.
Chest Breathing: This breathing pattern is focused primarily in the chest area and is far quicker and shorter than abdominal breathing. When we are stressed or anxious, we often subconsciously shift into this.
The first technique listed here is an effective way of analysing which breathing pattern you fall into. Being aware of our tendency to shift to chest breathing when stressed can help us act fast and feel calmer.
This is a great place to start- it’s a very simple technique that’s easy to use even when you’re out and about. Some of the other exercises lead on from this technique, so it’s probably worth mastering this one first.
- Either lay down somewhere comfortable or settle into a comfortable position.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly, just under your ribs.
- Take a deep breath through your nose, and let your breath push your hands out. The hand on your chest should not move, if it does, it means you are chest breathing.
- Breathe out deeply through your mouth, keep your hand on your belly and feel it move as you exhale.
- Repeat this a few more times, be sure to go slow.
- Take a moment to check-in and see how you feel afterward- do you feel any different?
If you try this technique and find that the hand on your chest does move- don’t panic! Many of us fall into this habit, and the fact that you have identified this means you have already taken a big step to adjusting your breathing for the better.
This is an increasingly popular technique often seen on mindfulness apps and other wellbeing assisting tools. It’s an easy and highly effective technique that can be used just about anywhere.
- Start by getting comfortable, in a relaxed position either sitting up or lying down with your palms facing upwards. If you are sitting in a chair you can always rest your hands on the armrests.
- Start by taking a deep inhale, then hold for 1 second. Then exhale for 1 second.
- Repeat this, but this time hold each inhale and exhale for 2 seconds. Keep this up until you reach 4 seconds on the cycle. Then repeat this process a few more times. It really is that simple.
A slightly different variation of this is to inhale, but instead, hold your breath and mentally count to 5. You can also try visualising a balloon inflating as you inhale to really help you focus on taking those deep and deliberate breaths. As you exhale, slowly count to 8 to completely empty your lungs before repeating.
Once you feel confident in this technique it’s one you can use anywhere and in any position, but while you are learning it’s best to lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor.
- Place your hands in the same place as in belly breathing- one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
- Try to make it so that when you breathe, only the hand on your belly moves. Be sure to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this process 8-10 times.
- Once you have finished the last step, it’s time to move onto the next part of this technique. Inhale with the focus on your lower breathing, then continue to inhale so that the hand on your chest also moves. The hand on your belly may fall a little as you do this, and that’s completely normal.
- As you exhale through your mouth, try and make a quiet, audible whooshing sound. Try to pay close attention to how your body adjusts to the rhythm. Keep this up for about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Once you’ve finished up, take a moment to see how you feel afterward.
A quick word of caution- some people tend to feel a little dizzy when they first start practicing roll breathing. If you begin to feel dizzy or lightheaded, try to slow your breathing a little. When you get up from your position, be sure to do so slowly and carefully. Learning new breathing techniques is a great idea, but your safety always comes first.
This technique is especially useful for shaking off that morning sluggishness. Following these steps can alleviate muscle tension and clear our airways, helping us to start our day on the right foot.
- From the standing position, slowly bend your body forward from the waist, keeping your knees slightly bent. You should be able to let your arms hang freely. Be sure to bend slowly to avoid straining yourself too much.
- Inhale deeply, and as you do, slowly return to a standing position, rolling your body from your waist with your head being the last area to return to the original standing position.
- Take a moment to hold your breath for a few seconds in this standing position.
- Repeat the first step- exhale slowly as you bend your body forward from the waist.
- Repeat this process a few more times- then check in with yourself. See how you are feeling and if anything has changed.
This technique builds off of what we learn the belly breathing exercise. By using gravity to our advantage we can make this technique far more effective. A quick side note- this method requires you to lie down, so be sure to try this one in a safe environment.
- Start by lying face down on the ground, resting your forehead on the top of your hands. Try to get yourself comfortable, and start to take deep breaths like in the belly breathing technique.
- Try and focus on breathing from your lower torso area. You will know that you are performing this technique correctly if you can feel your belly expand against the ground as you inhale. When you do this, it helps to make sure that you are focusing your breathing through your diaphragm and not your chest.
- Repeat this process for a few minutes. You could also light a scented candle or play some relaxing music to help yourself relax.
And there you have it. Try these techniques out and see which ones work for you. One of the best things about these breathing techniques is that remembering even just the fundamentals can be incredibly beneficial to us. Each day we can make the choice to face stress head-on, and taking that first deep breath is a great place to start.
Elizabeth Scott, MS (2020) How to Reduce Stress With Breathing Exercises, Verywell Mind, online, available: https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-reduce-stress-with-breathing-exercises-3144508
Healthwise Staff (2020) Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation, UOF Health, online, available: https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2255
Louisa Valvano, Breathe for Stress Relief, Stress Management Society, online, available: https://www.stress.org.uk/breath-for-stress-relief/
NHS (2018) Breathing Exercises for Stress, online, available: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/breathing-exercises-for-stress/
Nick Holt (2020) 3 Breathing Exercises for Stress Management at Work, Builtlean, online, available: https://www.builtlean.com/breathing-exercises-stress-management/
Sheryl Ankrom, MS (2021) 8 Deep Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety, Verywell Mind, online, available: https://www.verywellmind.com/abdominal-breathing-2584115