10 Breathing Exercises for Stress & Anxiety

Stress is an inevitable part of life. Here are 10 simple breathing exercises you can perform daily to manage stress levels wherever you are.

by Katherine Khaw

What is stress? It is defined as an expression of emotional or physical tension. This feeling can come from situations or thoughts that make you feel angry, irritated, nervous, and more. Stress is the way we react when we feel pressured or threatened. It often happens in events that we cannot seem to control or manage.

Stress may be experienced in the following moments:

  • Being unhappy in your working job
  • Having a lot of responsibilities or things to do
  • Working long hours, which may incur less time for oneself
  • Facing discrimination or harassment
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Financial worries
  • Moving out or into a place
  • Experiencing an illness or injury
  • Emotional trouble
  • Experiencing a traumatic event

What is anxiety? American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes such as increased blood pressure. With this, people who have anxiety go through significant stress. It is a reaction to a future-perceived threat and people who experience this may consider avoiding events out of worry and fear.

The Importance of Stress Relief

Although stress is a common affair for most people, it is important to get stress relief. The body releases hormones when reacting to stress, enabling the mind to be more alert, tensing your muscles and other reactions. When stress is not relieved or handled appropriately, the body stays alert in spite of no danger being present. As such, in the long run, stress can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being.

These are some of the dangers of extended stress over time:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Skin problems
  • Menstrual problems
  • Emotional troubles, such as forgetfulness, tiredness, lack of focus, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Significant weight loss or gain

Therefore, it is important to recognise these signs and symptoms in your everyday living. This article will share some breathing exercises that you can practice to relieve your stress.

List of Breathing Exercises

This is a list of breathing exercises that you may try that would not take too much time in your day. It is about taking the time to be intentional with your breathing. These exercises are used to reduce stress or improve lung function.

The most benefits are found if you do these regularly as a part of your daily routine. Most can be done standing up, sitting in a chair, or lying down.

Breathing Exercise #1: Pursed Lip Breathing

Take a conscious effort to breathe in and out with this method. You can practice this at any time. It is recommended to practice this breath 4 to 5 times a day when you first start out. These are the steps to follow:

  1. Loosen and relax your neck and shoulders.
  2. Then, keep your mouth closed. Take a deep breath slowly through the nose for 2 counts.
  3. Pucker or purse your lips in a formation as though you are about to whistle.
  4. Finally, exhale slowly by blowing air through pursed lips up to the count of 4.

Breathing Exercise #2: Diaphragmatic Breathing

This is also known as belly breathing. This exercise is best done when you are feeling relaxed. This can be practised for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 4 times per day. Here are the steps:

  1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent slightly. Your head should be on a pillow.
  2. As an optional basis, you may place a pillow under your knees for support.
  3. Now, place one hand on your upper chest and the other, below your rib cage. This would allow you to feel the diaphragm’s movement while breathing.
  4. Inhale slowly through the nose. You should be able to feel the stomach pressing into your hand.
  5. Keep the other hand motionless.
  6. Then, exhale with pursed lips when you tighten your stomach muscles. The upper hand should now be completely still.

To increase the difficulty, you may place a book on the abdomen. Once you have gotten the knack for doing this breathing technique while lying down, you may attempt it while seated in a chair or while performing daily activities.

Breathing Exercise #3: Breath Focus Technique

This technique uses imagery or focus words. With this, you would be required to use a word or phrase that makes you happy, relaxed or neutral to ponder about. Straightforward examples would be the words “peace” or “relax”, but it can be any other phrase that is suitable for focus or repetition throughout the breathing exercise.

If you are a beginner, you may start with a 10-minute session. You may gradually extend the duration until the sessions are at least 20 minutes long.

Here are the steps involved:

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably.
  2. Be aware of your breathing rhythm without intentionally changing it.
  3. Then, do some deep breaths in between the normal breaths. The abdomen should be expanding when doing deep breaths.
  4. Recognise the difference between shallow breathing compared to deep breathing.
  5. Practice deep breathing for a few minutes.
  6. Then, place one hand below the belly button and keep the belly relaxed. It should rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale.
  7. During the exhaling process, let out a loud sigh.
  8. Practice breath focus by combining deep breathing and the imagery or focus word that will support relaxation.
  9. For example, you can imagine that inhaling the air brings peace or relaxation into the body. You can mentally say it to help the imagery.
  10. Then, you can imagine that exhaling the air would expel stress and discomfort.

Breathing Exercise #4: Alternate-Nostril Breathing

Alternate-nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) is the act of blocking off one nostril at a time, and breathing through the other. The intention is to breathe through alternate nostrils in a regular pattern. This is best practised while sitting down in order to maintain your posture.

  1. Begin by closing your eyes.
  2. Then, inhale and exhale intentionally to establish a rhythm.
  3. Once you have done that, begin by closing your right nostril with your thumb.
  4. Inhale through your left nostril.
  5. Later, close off your left nostril with the ring finger.
  6. With this, open and exhale through the right nostril.
  7. Repeat this pattern for up to 10 rounds of alternate-nostril breathing.

If you happen to feel light-headed after practising this, take a break from it. Release both nostrils and breathe normally.

Breathing Exercise #5: Box Breathing

Box breathing is also known as four-square breathing. It is simple to learn and practice. If you are able to breathe according to the rhythm of a song, it is already a similar concept to apply. This type of paced breathing can be initiated in the following manner:

  1. Exhale to a count of four.
  2. Then, hold your lungs empty for a four-count.
  3. After, inhale to a count of four.
  4. Then, hold the air in your lungs for another count of four.
  5. Exhale and repeat the newfound pattern of breathing.

Breathing Exercise #6: 4-7-8 Breathing

This breathing exercise is known as the relaxing breath. It acts as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. This is best learnt in a sitting position with your back straightened, but over time (once familiar), you may perform this while lying down.

  1. Keep the tip of your tongue against the part behind your upper front teeth throughout this exercise.
  2. Exhale through the mouth, which would make a “whoosh” sound.
  3. Then, close your mouth and inhale quietly through the nose, up to the count of four.
  4. Proceed to hold your breath for a count of seven.
  5. Lastly, exhale completely through the mouth, making a “whoosh” sound to the count of eight.

Breathing Exercise #7: Mindful Breathing

This technique requires you to focus completely on breathing without needing to change the natural rhythm. This method could be useful in helping anxiousness, stress, sleep issues, or high blood pressure. Some may find this as a form of meditation.

To perform mindful breathing, be sure to meet these factors:

  • Find a peaceful place without distractions
  • Be comfortable in your body posture, be it sitting or lying down
  • Focus solely on breathing
  • Allow thoughts to pass through the mind without feeling strongly about them (i.e. agitation, frustration, worry)

Breathing Exercise #8: Lion’s Breath

This deep breathing method will teach you to stick your tongue out and roar like a lion. This can help to relax muscles, alleviate stress, and improve cardiovascular function. It is best performed in a seated position, in which you are able to lean forward with your hands on your knees or on the floor.

  1. Fingers should be spread out as wide as possible.
  2. Inhale through the nose.
  3. Open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue. The tongue should be stretched down toward the chin.
  4. Exhale forcefully, causing the breath to cross the root of your tongue. Make a “ha” sound that comes from deep within the abdomen.
  5. Breathe normally for a few moments before repeating the lion’s breath up to seven times.

Breathing Exercise #9: Equal Breathing

This breathing technique focuses on making the length of inhales and exhales that you take, equal. This brings about balance. Usually, people would use a count between 3 to 5. Equal breathing can be done during other daily activities as well.

  1. Choose a comfortable position while sitting.
  2. Breathe in and out through the nose.
  3. Each exhale and inhale should be counted to make sure that they are even in length.
  4. A pause in between the exercise can be included if it feels more comfortable in that manner.
  5. This breathing exercise can be practised for at least 5 minutes.

Breathing Exercise #10: Resonant Breathing

This may sound similar to other breathing practices. This breathing technique is achieved when you inhale and exhale for a count of 5. This breathing rate is speculated to maximise your heart rate variability (HRV) and reduce stress.

  1. Begin by inhaling for a count of 5.
  2. Then, exhale for a count of 5.
  3. Repeat this procedure for a few minutes at a minimum.

Takeaway

Some breathing exercises may suit you better than others listed above. In addition, this is not an exhaustive list but a place to start from. Do not continue if you are experiencing discomfort during the exercises. Breathing techniques do not replace medication (if there is a need) but work alongside the existing treatment. For some people, stress is treated by therapy or medication.

A person who is experiencing immense stress or anxiety tends to take short, shallow breaths. This can upset the body’s rhythm, incurring physical sensations such as increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, and more. The exercises listed in this article intend to bring balance by introducing deep or even breathing to regulate the nervous system’s response. This allows you to avoid engaging the “fight-or-flight” response over an extended period of time, which may harm your body’s well-being.

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References

References

  1. American Psychological Association (2022). Anxiety [Definition]. Retrieved 12 September 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety .
  2. Ankrom, S. (2022). 9 Breathing Exercises to Relieve Anxiety [Article]. Retrieved 12 September 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/abdominal-breathing-2584115 .
  3. Cronkleton, E. (2019). 10 Breathing Techniques for Stress Relief and More [Article]. Retrieved 13 September 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/breathing-exercise .
  4. Medline Plus (2020). Stress and your health [Article]. Retrieved 12 September 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm .
  5. Mind (2022). Stress [Article]. Retrieved 12 September 2022, from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/stress/what-is-stress/ .
  6. Sissons, C. (2020). Useful breathing techniques to consider trying [Article]. Retrieved 13 September 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/breathing-techniques .
  7. Watson, S. (2022). Causes of Stress [Article]. Retrieved 12 September 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/causes-of-stress .

About the Writer
Katherine Khaw
Katherine is an avid reader, finding joy in halls of words. Aside from the imagination wandering in worlds not here, she enjoys stargazing and gardening. In her heart of hearts, she aspires to be a writer, and to be more than mere dust.
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