3 Simple and Effective Breathing Exercises for Reducing Stress



It’s one of those things we just take for granted. Like the sun rising each morning, like leaves falling in autumn…. it’s just one of those things we know will happen and we don’t need to think about.

There are a rare few of us who breathe deep and easy, whereas let’s face it, for the majority of us it’s shallow and tense.

I remember at crazy stressful times working in my previous life in advertising, I would go for whole days (and probably weeks…) forgetting to actually take a breath. I was so tight in my chest that it sometimes felt like I barely used my lungs. As if they had perhaps frozen over from lack of use. Perhaps you can relate?

It should come as no surprise that shallow and tight breathing go hand in hand in stress. Unfortunately, our bodies are wired that way. Instead of using our diaphragm to move air in and out of our lungs, we actually use our shoulders.

Yep, that’s another reason why your shoulders may be feeling like you’re carrying the weight of the world around with you.

Don’t forget to breathe

Obvious right?

We’ve known for thousands of years that breathing has a powerful influence over our physiologically and our psychological wellbeing (it stops us from turning into that crazy person for starters…). Every day we take around 20,000 breaths so you’d think we’d have figured out a few things by now….. but we’re also living in one of the most stressful times in the history of our planet.

Too many of us are living in a constant state of stress which means we’re functioning in a fight or flight response. Remember that bear chasing you through the woods….no wait…. It’s actually a giant pile of emails and the impending threat of the awkward phone call you keep putting off….

Are you being chased by bears or checking your emails?

Our minds know no difference. We simply perceive a threat and our body rises to the challenge. It’s actually a smart move by your body, and one that would aid your chances of survival if there actually was a bear present. But of course there isn’t. And there never was.

Your Breathing When You’re Stressed

Shallow breathing not only causes us to lose some of the function of our lungs (those muscles just aren’t getting any exercise), it’s also causing greater levels of fatigue due to lower oxygen levels, higher levels of built up toxins in the blood, and impacting your immune system. You’d be right in thinking none of these things are doing you any favours in life.

It’s clear therefore that learning to actually breathe the way nature intended us to can dramatically increase your health and wellbeing. You’ll also be better equipped to cope with the day to day stresses of life…. and not become known as the crazy lady at work.

3 Simple and Effective Breathing Exercises for Reducing Stress

There are hundreds of different breathing exercises you can try to gain relief from stress, but these three are my absolute favourite and I often recommend them to my clients, especially those suffering from anxiety and ongoing chronic stress.

1. Zazen Breathing

Based on a breathing method from Zen Buddhism, this is a very simple breathing exercise which I simply love. If you mediate you could easily incorporate this method into your practice too. There are three central aspects to Zazen; the aspect of the body, the aspect of breathing, and the aspect of mind. I am only going to cover the breath here, but if you are interested, I would encourage you to read more about the practice of Zazen.

The technique is as simple as counting a single number with every out breath, continuing from one to ten and then returning to one again. It’s surprisingly relaxing just focusing on the out breath.

As you breathe, bring your attention to your lungs and allow your breath to naturally deepen.

2. 4-7-8 Breathing

Another firm favourite and one developed by Dr Andrew Weil. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere (what’s not to love?). Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.

  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.

  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.

This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

The key thing to remember with this exercise is that the absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. Breathe to your own breath cycle, and when starting don’t try and count in seconds as you may find this very uncomfortable. You can read more about this amazing practice here.

3. Sama Vritti or “Equal Breathing”

This technique focuses on balance. To start, inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four — all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath.

If you’re feeling a little more advanced, try increasing the count to six to eight counts per breath. The goal here is to calm the nervous system, increase your focus and reduce stress.

And the best part?

All of these exercises can be done at your desk, in an open plan office, on the bus, in the car or walking down the street. They are simple but powerful tools to help manage your stress and bring about balance and rejuvenation to both your mind and body.

Plus, there’s an added benefit than deep, slow, mindful breathing actually helps to slow aging and prevent disease.

Sounds like a win-win to me!