Stress can wreak havoc on your system if left unchecked. It has been linked to high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and even anxiety and depression. And while you may not be able to escape the stress of day-to-day living, some easy breathing techniques can help you relax and cope with it better.1 Control your breath and you can control so much more.
Deep Breathing Balances Your Body And Kickstarts The Relaxation Response
When you are stressed your body’s fight or flight response kicks in, causing your breathing rate to increase and the pattern of breathing to change. Short and shallow breaths from breathing with the help of the shoulders instead of the diaphragm results in a disruption of the balance of gases in your body. This can worsen anxiety and heighten physical symptoms linked to stress. When you control your breathing, you quell these symptoms and lower your heart rate and blood pressure, restore the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood, bring down stress hormones in your blood, and cut lactic acid levels building in muscle tissue. You will then feel a sense of greater calm and more physical energy. Your immune system also functions better.2
A simple answer to a stressful life? Focus on your breath and invoke what Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist, calls the “relaxation response.” You could employ a host of methods to breathe and relax your body – whether that’s through progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or yoga. People also find the focus on breath in tai chi, repetitive prayer, qi gong, and guided imagery can help spark this relaxation response. Done right, deep and controlled breathing can help you battle stress, bring your body into a place of calm and relaxation, and even circumvent a lot of health niggles, including something as simple as catching colds or other infections frequently.3 Here are some breathing techniques you should try.
Equal Breathing Technique Or Sama Vritti
This is a simple technique that you can begin with, where you learn to focus on your breath without too much effort.4 The evening out of the breath in this technique is known as “sama vritti” in pranayama, a form of controlled yogic breathing.5
- This method can be done sitting, standing or even lying down.
- Begin to breathe deeply so you feel the breath going down into the depths of your belly. It shouldn’t feel forced.
- Now inhale through your nose and exhale through the mouth.
- Keep your breaths steady, regular, and gentle. You could try counting to help at first.
- Hold your inhalation to a count from 1 to 5. At first, you may only manage to hold for 1 or 2 counts. Build up to 5 over time.
- Do not hold your breath or force a stop in the breathing process. Smoothly transition from the inhale to the exhale, letting air flow out of your mouth gently. Count to 5 again if that eases things.
- Practice this method for 3–5 minutes every day.
When you breathe from your abdomen, you make a conscious shift from the characteristic shallow upper chest breathing typical of a stress response. Here’s how you do it6:
- Sit down in a comfortable position on a comfortable surface or even the floor on a mat.
- Raise your ribcage so you feel your chest expanding.
- Put one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Pay attention to how the abdomen and chest move with each breath.
- Focus on your breath. Breathe gently in and out from your nose.
- Your abdomen and upper chest must not move. This makes it easier for the diaphragm to do its job along with the abdomen and prevents the shoulders and chest from driving the filling and emptying of the lungs.
- You should feel the tension draining away from your body as you breath with your abdomen, slowly, and consciously. You should also feel a sense of physical relaxation after some time.
Controlled Breathing With Imagery
Do this technique lying down or seated. Keep your eyes closed throughout and try not to distract yourself with any thoughts.7
- Inhale normally for the first breath.
- Follow this with a deep breath taken in from your nose, filling the chest and belly, noticing them expand as your lungs fill with air.
- Once your belly is fully expanded, breathe out from your mouth if you can. If this is uncomfortable or feels unnatural, exhale from your nose.
- Once you have managed this rhythm and it feels effortless, with your eyes still closed, picture an image, a word, a phrase, that calms you. Focus on this and feel yourself relax further as you keep up the gentle rhythmic controlled breathing.
Deep Muscle Relaxation
Set aside around 20 minutes for this practice which should stretch and relax different muscles. It helps release tension both physically and mentally. Avoid muscles that are injured and painful. Music may help heighten the benefits for some people. You will focus on one muscle group at a time, stretching them for a couple of seconds before releasing them and relaxing.8
- Lie down, close your eyes, and concentrate on breathing in slowly and deeply using techniques mentioned earlier.
- Simulate frowning with your eyebrows, pushing them together and then releasing.
- Tilt your head forward so your chin pushes into your chest before lifting it back up.
- Shrug your shoulder so they reach up to the ears before relaxing them so they fall down toward your feet.
- Inhale deeply and slowly into your bottom ribs so your lungs are filled fully. Exhale to completely deflate your abdomen.
- Stretch your arms, reaching away from the body before relaxing them.
- Now stretch your legs, pushing even your toes out and away before pulling them back and relaxing.
- Pull your hand up to your body to stretch your wrist. Stretch your thumbs and fingers out. Relax.
- Do two repetitions of the sequence if you can.
In yoga, the controlling of your breath is known as pranayama. It is best learned under the guidance of a trained practitioner but can then be practiced independently. Some yoga breathing techniques are described next and help with stress relief.
Kumbhaka Pranayama Or Breath Retention
In this method, you will learn to practice breath retention either after you exhale or after you inhale. Start with equal breathing to counts of 6 if you can. As you inhale, hold for two counts. Now breathe normally twice or thrice before you do the next breath retention.9
Nadi Shodhana Or Alternate Nostril Breathing
In nadi shodhana or anuloma viloma, your right hand is held in a position resembling a deer. You use your ring and pinky finger (joined together to almost be one single unit) to keep the left nostril closed and the right nostril is held closed by the thumb.
- Begin by closing the right nostril first and breathe in from the open left nostril.
- Now close the left nostril and exhale from the right nostril.
- Inhale from your right nostril with the left still closed.
- Now close your right nostril and open the left exhaling from it.
- Do this twice or thrice before taking a break to breathe normally.
- Take a minute’s break between the next set of repetitions.10 11
Practice Deep Breathing Twice A Day For 10–20 minutes
Regardless of which breathing technique you choose, there are some ways to make the experience more beneficial. Keep these simple things in mind when you do your breathing exercises.12
- Set aside 10 to 20 minutes every single day for this practice. Even when you’re on holiday or traveling for work. Even more so when you’re having a manic day.
- If you can manage two sessions a day at around the same time every day, that’s even better. The sense of ritual adds to the effectiveness, plus it gets you into the habit.
- Find a calm and quiet spot where you can practice your breathing uninterrupted. If you need to shut off your room by closing the door, do that. Let everyone know not to disturb you during this 10 to 20 minute window.
- Strike the right balance where you’re not tensing up from concentrating too hard but are not overly passive either. Transition from the stressor to the calm – something regular practice will help you do
|↑1, ↑3, ↑7, ↑12||Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑2, ↑6||Breathing to reduce stress. Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia.|
|↑4||Breathing exercise for stress. National Health Service.|
|↑5||Rhea, Shiva. Even Out Your Senses. Yoga Journal, Nov-Dec 2004.|
|↑8||Relaxation techniques for stress relief. Health Direct Australia.|
|↑9, ↑10||Joshi, Kalidas Sadashiv. Yogic Pranayama: Breathing for Long Life and Good Health. Orient Paperbacks, 1982.|
|↑11||Channel-Cleaning Breath. Yoga Journal.|