My Top 5 Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief | Chris Kresser

My Top 5 Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief

by Chris Kresser

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These people are lying down and conducting a body scan, which is an effective breathing exercise for stress relief.
Lying down and conducting a body scan is an effective breathing exercise for stress relief. iStock/fizkes

A little stress is the spice of life, and it has its benefits. Healthy stress can help sharpen your focus so you can power through that work presentation, for example, creatively solve a pressing problem, or even run a 5K at top form. If you had no stress in your life, you’d likely be bored, unmotivated, and not living up to your full potential.

But when stress becomes chronic, or long term, it begins to take a toll on both your body and your brain—which happens to way too many of us. More than three-fourths of all Americans regularly experience stress-related physical symptoms such as fatigue, headache, or an upset stomach. (1) Stress seeps into relationships, invades your office space, and keeps you up at night.

Fortunately, you can learn to manage it—and simple breathing techniques can help. Here are five breathing exercises for stress relief to help you through your next difficult moment.

Diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and gut dysbiosis all have links to chronic stress. If you’re feeling stressed day in and day out, these breathing exercises can help. Take a deep breath and check out five breathing techniques that can help you find relief. #healthylifestyle #wellness

This Is You on Stress

Stress is a normal mind–body response that all of us experience to some degree. Physiologist Hans Selye first used “stress” in this sense in 1936, defining it as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” (2)

When you’re stressed, you go into what’s known as “fight-or-flight” mode: your body releases a surge of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which snaps you into high-alert mode. Your blood pressure and heart rate go up, your muscles tighten, you breathe faster, and your senses sharpen.

There are real evolutionary advantages to this. After all, how do you think our Paleolithic ancestors survived being chased by predators? These physical changes in your body speed your reaction time and enhance your focus and allow you to act quickly and decisively. This rush of stress hormones appears to temporarily strengthen brain neuron connections, which, in turn, may improve your memory and concentration over the short term.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that rats exposed to acute but short-lived stress doubled the production of new brain cells in their hippocampus (the memory center of the brain), compared to brain cell production under normal conditions. (3) This type of short-term stress may actually help to temporarily boost immunity by increasing levels of white blood cells like neutrophils and lymphocytes. (4)

Managing Bad Stress

The key to managing your stress is the ability to turn it on and off like a faucet. Left on too long, it can cause major damage to your mind and body. In our 21st-century world, stress doesn’t usually come in the form of occasionally fighting against life-threatening wild beasties as we hunt and gather our food. Instead, it manifests on a daily basis through routine stressors—a traffic-filled morning commute … a difficult boss … deadlines and demands … unresolved relationship issues … family obligations … and a cellphone chirping at you at all hours of the day.

Your body responds to this chronic stress by activating the hypothalamus, triggering your adrenal glands to release cortisol. When you’re constantly stressed, your cortisol levels are running high all the time. That’s why you—and your body—are headed for health trouble if you don’t get chronic stress under control.

A 2018 study published in the journal Circulation, for example, examined almost 222,000 people over the age of 45 and found that those with a high degree of stress had a significantly higher risk of heart attack or stroke. (5) Another study found that people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other stress-related psychiatric issues were up to 46 percent more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder later in life. (6)

Other effects of chronic stress include:

  • Elevated blood sugar, increasing risk of diabetes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Leaky gut
  • Reduced ability to burn fat and increase in belly fat
  • Reduced (inadequate) levels of the adrenal hormone DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone, and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which can lead to insulin resistance
  • Higher risk of depression, anxiety, and mood imbalances
Stress contributes to all modern, chronic disease.

No matter how picture perfect your lifestyle may appear to be—and no matter how healthy your diet is—if you’re not managing your stress effectively, you’re at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and autoimmune disorders.

Breathe Your Way to Stress Relief

While we can’t eliminate all stress from our lives, we can control our responses to it. Stressful experiences often trigger a cascade of fears and anxieties. As a result, we get so carried away by our thought processes that we’re unable to cope with the reality of the moment.

Enter mindful breathing. It’s exactly what it sounds like—being mindful of, or putting all your attention into, your breath.

This type of practice helps ground us in the present moment and focus on what is, right now, rather than what we fear might be. It’s a very helpful mindfulness technique, especially for beginners and for those who resist traditional meditation practices, because it gives you something specific to focus on—your breathing—when your mind starts to wander so you won’t get distracted by worries or other negative emotions.

Research shows that mindful breathing is one of the most effective tools in our toolbox to reduce stress and anxiety. In one study, practicing daily mindful breathing reduced feelings of test anxiety in college students, and eventually scientists stumbled upon the reason why: Deep breathing appears to deactivate a handful of brain nerve cells that trigger anxiety. (7, 8)

Try These Five Breathing Exercises for Stress Management

Ready to give it a try? Here are five breathing techniques to get you started.

1. Basic Beginner Breaths

If you’re just dipping your toes into mindful breathing, keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. The most basic way to do mindful breathing is to focus your attention on your breath, both the inhale and the exhale, ideally sitting or lying down (you may find it easier to hold onto your focus with your eyes closed).

Take exaggerated breaths: a deep three-second inhale through your nose, hold your breath for two seconds, and breathe out through your mouth for four seconds. When your mind wanders, bring your attention once again to your breath. Repeat. Try working your way up to about 15 minutes a day. (9)

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing

This type of breathing—also called “abdominal breathing” or “belly breathing”—slows your heartbeat and can also lower blood pressure. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, researchers have found, and stimulates the activity of the vagal nerve, another important component of stress reduction. (10)

Here’s how to do it: (11)

  • Lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent (if needed, place a pillow under your knees for support)
  • Put one hand on your upper chest and one below your rib cage, so you can feel your diaphragm move as you breathe
  • Inhale slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach move out against your hand, then tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale through your mouth

Practice this type of breathing for five to 10 minutes, three to four times a day. As you get more comfortable with this method, you can even place a book on your stomach to make it a little more challenging (and effective).

3. Alternate Nostril Breathing

This technique—where you rotate inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other—is a yogic breath control practice. It’s thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain, and, as a result, balances your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A 2013 study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing lowered their perceived stress levels. (12)

Here’s how to do it: (13)

  • Sit straight up in a comfortable seat, your left palm comfortably in your lap
  • Lift your right hand to your face so that your pointer and middle fingers rest between your eyebrows
  • Close your eyes and inhale and exhale deeply through your nose
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb while inhaling through your left nostril
  • Close your left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed for a moment, then open your right nostril and exhale slowly through your right side
  • Inhale through your right nostril, then hold both nostrils closed with your ring finger and thumb
  • Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through your left side
  • Repeat five to 10 times once a day, or as desired

4. 4-7-8 Breathing

This technique, developed by integrative medicine guru Andrew Weil, MD, is based on the yogic technique pranayama. Weil himself refers to it as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.

How to do it: (14)

  • Sit with your back straight and place the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth. You’ll need to keep it there throughout this breathing exercise
  • Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound
  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to the silent count of four
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven
  • Open your mouth and exhale through it, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight
  • Repeat this cycle three more times
  • Repeat this process at least twice a day

5. Body Scan

This breathing technique involves doing deep breathing while focusing your attention on different parts of your body, from head to toe, starting with your forehead and ending at the muscles in your feet. Combat veterans with PTSD who performed it for 20 minutes each day at home for six weeks reported improvements in symptoms, according to a 2016 Oregon Health & Science University study. (15) Another study of women aged 18 to 46 found that those who practiced body scan four days a week for three weeks reported feeling less stress and more happiness than a placebo group. (16) It can be done lying down or sitting—whatever’s most comfortable for you.

Here’s how to do a body scan: (17)

  • While sitting or lying down, close your eyes and pay attention to your body’s position—for example, the weight of your body against the chair or the floor
  • Take a deep breath, visualizing oxygen entering your body as you inhale and focusing on a sense of relaxation as you exhale
  • Focus on the sensations of your feet touching the floor or of your legs pressing against the chair
  • Now, work your way up to bring attention to other areas of your body. How does your back feel against the chair? Are your hands or stomach tense? (If so, try to relax them.) Loosen your shoulders and let your jaw relax
  • Take one more moment to notice your whole body, take a breath, and open your eyes

Initially, start with short periods of time of three to five minutes before working your way up to at least 20 minutes at least three times a week. The more you practice body scan, the more benefits you’ll enjoy.

Maybe you practice breathing exercises to cope with the stress of going to a job that just isn’t fulfilling to you; you’re waiting for the right time to make the switch to work that involves helping others find their way to health. Maybe you teach breathing practices in your yoga classes, but you want to do even more to help others improve their lives. Maybe mindful breathing was one crucial lifestyle change that helped you heal, and now you want to help as many others as possible recover from the effects of chronic stress. Your next step? Health coaching. Enroll in a health coach training program to get the guidance you need to kickstart your career.

Now, I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever tried any of these breathing exercises for stress? What were your results? Tell me below in the comments!

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