Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress

by | Apr 9, 2020

Author: Ashley Boynes-Shuck

Unpredictability can be scary — and we’re living in unprecedented times, for sure. Two things we do have control over, though, even in the midst of chaos, are our thoughts and our breath.

Breathing for most of us in an ‘automated’ activity — it happens without conscious thought to keep us alive. However, we can also actively control our breath and us it as a tool for relaxation.

We can use breathing exercises and breathwork-centered meditations to calm our minds and spirits even during times of great stress or anxiety. In fact, this concept is nothing new: the way we breathe is a hallmark of practices such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Some reiki practitioners, psychotherapists, and hypnotherapists even use breathing techniques as a way to help clients stay grounded, mindful, soul-focused, and attuned to their bodies. 

Diaphragmatic breathing has a multitude of potential benefits, and according to Harvard, deep breathing can help reduce stress and quell our ‘fight or flight’ response.

In the worlds of psychology and neuropsychiatry, “biodynamic breathwork” can even be a part of a bigger process called biofeedback, which is essentially the process of gaining greater awareness of the physiological functions of your own body — in this case, breathing. 

Yoga, on the other hand, at times focuses on pranayama, which means “to extend the vital life force.” It is a practice made up of a plentitude of breathing techniques and variations that basically range in complexity from novice to expert.  In yoga, you may hear yogis or instructors talking about ‘dragon breath’ or kundalini breathing. These are all techniques of breathwork incorporated into the yoga practice.

At Noom, we offer a number of tools to help you cope with your emotions in a healthy way, and we encourage everyone to experiment and find out what works best for them in their wellness journey.

Here are some basic breathwork exercises that can help you when you’re feeling stressed, distracted, or otherwise needing a little mental-emotional reset:

1. Do the ‘54321’ approach: Breathe in, breathe out. Whiile you’re breathing, find:

  • 5 things you can see around you
  • 4 things you can touch around you
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

2. Breathe mindfully: Bring your attention to your breath with the help of this gif.

3. Focus on your exhales: Sit comfortably in any of a seated or lying position, place your hand on your belly, breathe out through your nose with a strong snort as you gently push your belly back towards your spine, focus on your breath as it goes out. Do the “Dragon Breath” 3-6 times. Then breathe in and out normally, and repeat.  

4. Move your breath through your body: First, take 5 deep, cleansing  breaths from the throat/esophageal region. Then, five deep breaths in and out from the heart/chest region. Lastly, 5 deep breaths in and out from the solar plexus/lower belly. Repeat.

5. Try Box Breathing: Box breathing (also called “square breathing”) is a very simple breathing technique that helps you increase mindfulness and focus, calm muscle tension, lower blood pressure, and release anxiety. 

  • To begin, sit upright and fully exhale through your mouth. 
  • Slowly inhale, through your nose, while counting to four. Try to fill your lungs completely in one big, deep breath. 
  • Hold your breath and slowly count to four again. 
  • Exhale through your mouth for another slow count of four seconds, being sure to fully release the air from your chest and abdomen. 
  • Finally, hold your breath for another slow, four-second count. That’s it! 

Repeat the whole cycle several times, with your focus on the air entering and leaving your body. Four second inhale, four second hold, four second exhale, four second hold. Those four steps make up the “box” in box breathing.

6. Try alternate nostril breathing: Another powerful deep breathing exercise to emerge from the yoga tradition is called alternate nostril breathing. Like other methods, this breathing practice is known to curb anxiety and trigger a relaxation response, bringing much-needed stress relief and mindfulness to your daily life. It’s also been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit comfortably on the floor with your legs crossed. Or, if that’s difficult for you, sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Keeping your left hand in your lap or on your left knee, exhale completely and then use your right hand thumb to block your right nostril. 
  • Now inhale through your left nostril, then block it with your fingers and open up your right nostril. 
  • Exhale through your right nostril, pause, then inhale through the same nostril.
  • Block the right nostril again and exhale through your left nostril. This is one full cycle of alternate nostril breathing.

Repeat this cycle several times, then resume normal breathing. Focus on the air moving in and out of your lungs, and allow it to carry away your muscle tension, stress, and anxiety.

These are just some ideas of many!

In addition to different types of breathing and relaxation exercises we explore at Noom, you can also find mindful breathing exercises as well as breathwork meditations on YouTube, or try a variety of calming apps to help you focus on your breath. Some medical schools, therapists, and healthcare providers may also be able to offer up tips and ideas. If you have an Apple Watch or certain models of the Fitbit, you can also use them to ease you through guided breathwork activities. 

Remember that we are all unique, and some breathing exercises will resonate with you more than others. Be gentle with yourself as you begin to explore what works for you, and focus on doing what feels good to you in your body and mind.

For more inspiration, kickstart your 14-day Noom trial today!