The Most Powerful Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress and Feel Better

Thu, 05/12/2022 - 13:48

While seemingly effortless to most of us, breathing is actually a complex process involving the lungs, diaphragm, and intercostal muscles. Because we breathe involuntarily, many of us aren’t really paying attention to the 22,000 breaths we take in a day. That said, being more mindful and going so far as to practice different types of breathing can really work wonders for our health. Breathwork helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation. This in turn quiets your sympathetic nervous system, which activates your stress / fight or flight response. You will also likely notice that a regular breathing practice helps:

  • Reducing Anxiety and stress
  • Improving sleep
  • Boosting immunity
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Better digestion
  • Strengthening respiratory function

The following is a list of the 6 most prevalent and impactful breathing exercises, their benefits and simple instruction on how to perform them. I recommend starting with 5 minutes a day and building up from there to 10 to 15 minute sessions several times a week.

Diaphragm Breathing / Belly Breathing
Diaphragmatic Breathing is great for literally conditioning your diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped muscle located at the base of your lungs. Your abdominal muscles help move the diaphragm and give you more power to empty your lungs. If the diaphragm is not working fully, the body will use other muscles for breathing, usually relying on the back, neck, or chest. This type of breath work not only relaxes you, but more importantly it improves the overall quality of your breath.

To perform diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Lay on your back and place the hands lightly on the belly
  • Relax the neck and shoulders
  • Breathe in through the nose until the belly rises
  • Breathe out through the mouth for twice as long

Box breathing / 4-4-4-4 Breathing
Box breathing, also known as 4-4-4-4 breathing is actually a technique employed by navy seals to reduce stress and improve focus. For the best results, people should sit upright in a comfortable chair, rest your hands in your lap, and relax your neck and shoulders. 

To perform box breathing:

  • Breathe in through the nose for a count of four, filling the lungs
  • Hold the breath for a count of four
  • Breathe out slowly through the mouth for a count of four, emptying the lungs fully
  • Wait for a count of four before breathing in again

Pursed Lip Breathing / Resistance Breathing
This is a type of resistance breathing that can help strengthen your diaphragm and is particularly great for people living with lung conditions like Asthma or COPD. Use this technique during the difficult part of any activity, such as bending, lifting or stair climbing.

To perform pursed lip breathing, a person should:

  • Breathe in through the nose for two counts
  • Breathe out through the mouth with pursed lips for a count of 4 

Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing can lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. People may consider trying this technique to manage anxiety and reduce stress. It can also help with sleep issues! This technique requires a person to concentrate fully on the breath, using this focused attention as a form of meditation, allowing thoughts to pass through the mind without judgment.

There are many different mindful breathing techniques. One simple one is to focus on the natural rhythm of breathing in and out, without trying to change it. Doing this may naturally slow down the breathing.

To perform mindful breathing:

  • Find a quiet place without distractions
  • Choose a comfortable position, ideally sitting or lying down
  • Focus on breathing by feeling and listening to the body inhale and exhale
  • Allow thoughts to pass through the mind without judgment

Alternate Nostril Breathing
Most people use one nostril more than the other without realizing it. This exercise can even out the breath and help reduce anxiety and manage stress.

To perform alternate nostril breathing:

  • Close the right nostril with the thumb of one hand
  • Breathe in through the left nostril
  • Close the left nostril with the fourth finger and release the thumb
  • Breathe out through the right nostril
  • Breathe in through the right nostril
  • Close the right nostril with the thumb and release the fourth finger
  • Breathe out through the left nostril

4/7/8 Breathing
Created by Dr. Weil based on a yogic practice called pranayama breath. People may consider trying 4-7-8 breathing to aid sleep.

This exercise can help ease a busy mind before going to bed. Focusing on the breath and counting can distract from worries or stress as a person tries to fall asleep. This technique also helps breathing become more regular and can relax the body. Before starting this exercise, people should rest the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, try to relax the muscles, and breathe out fully through the mouth.

People can then perform the 4-7-8 breathing technique:

  • Breathe in through the nose for a count of four
  • Hold the breath for a count of seven
  • Part the lips and exhale loudly for a count of eight