Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress

Jamie Price is a wellness expert and co-founder of Stop, Breathe & Think, an emotional wellness app that recommends short personalized meditations and activities tuned to your emotions. In the second of a three-part series, Jamie shares breathing exercises you can do anytime to help connect your breath and mind and to reduce stress. (Read part one here.)

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Stress starts with the body’s arousal system, which helps provide the energy and alertness to do things. Too little arousal and you’re not motivated to do anything. Too much and you feel stressed and anxious. But right in the middle, you can find balance and solid ground. People thrive when they experience just the right amount of arousal.

Here’s how it works. The Autonomic Nervous System directs the “fight, flight or freeze” response (the Sympathetic Nervous System, or SNSt). and the “Rest and Digest” response (Parasympathetic Nervous System, or PNS). The SNS and PNS are a team—while the SNS accelerates your heartbeat and breathing and coordinates blood flow to various internal organs, the PNS calms and restores the body by slowing down your breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. The PNS is key to resting, digesting, and feeling relaxed, safe and at ease.

The SNS response is helpful if you’re in a life threatening situation, but when “fight, flight or freeze” activates too often, we can feel over-stressed and anxious. To stay balanced, you can learn how to activate the PNS when the SNS is running wild.

Breathing exercises have been proven to help to balance the ANS by increasing PNS (1). When you are able to strengthen your attention by focusing on something neutral like the breath, you can actually slow the momentum of stress and worry. One approach is to intentionally breath to calm and balance your nervous system. Another is to use your breath to strengthen your focus, which enables you to step out of the loop of thoughts and worries that feed stress.

Focusing on your breath to relieve stress isn’t a new idea, and there’s a lot of scientific evidence to show that it works. For instance, studies have shown that the ability to focus attention on your breath through exercises like Mindful Breathing are beneficial for dealing with everyday stress, anxiety and emotional ups and downs (2). 2:4 Breathing, where you extend the length of your exhale, is thought to give more emphasis to the PNS, allowing it more time to calm and quiet your body (3). Breathing mindfully won’t eliminate stress (that’s impossible!), but it will help you manage it and feel a greater sense of ease.

2:4 Breathing

• Let your breath flow naturally, and count the length of your inhale.
• As you continue to breathe, make your exhale is twice as long as your inhale.
• For example, if you breath in for a count of four, then breathe out for a count of eight.
• Follow a relaxed and slow pace that is natural to you.

Mindful Breathing—Following the Breath

• Let your breathing be natural and relaxed
• Notice the feeling of your breath as you breathe in and out.
• Noticing the first moment you start to breathe in, following that sensation to the first moment you start to breathe out, and following that sensation to the first moment you begin to breathe in.
• To help keep your attention on your in breath, silently say “in” as you breathe in, and “out” as you breathe out.
• Let your breathing be natural and relaxed as you follow the sensation of each inhale and exhale.

The beauty of these exercises is that they can be practices anywhere. For example, next time you’re in traffic and feeling stressed, try one of these exercises. Let us know how you feel afterwards.


Read more about the benefits of mind-body connection: Techniques for Mindful Breathing, MTap Into the Mind-Body Connection with 15 Minutes of Restorative Yoga, and Keep Your Body and Mind on Track With These Travel Items

(1) “Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers.” Pal G, Velkumary S, Madanmohan, 2004. (2) “Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction.” Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G., 2006. (3) John Clarke, M.D., Harvard Medical School and is board certified cardiologist.