Breathing tips to relieve stress

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Health Advisor

02 August 2017

The importance of the breath

We can survive 3 weeks without water and 1 week without food1 and we can go between 1 and 4 weeks without sleep.2 How many weeks can we survive without breathing? None! The absolute maximum time we can survive without the breath is around 10 minutes.3   Breathing is essential to our survival!

Breathing is a crucial part of our life, although many of us go through our day without giving it much thought. With the ever-growing levels of stress in our lives it’s no wonder that our respiratory health takes a back seat! But breathing correctly can actually help us stay in control of our stress levels.

What are the benefits of breathing correctly?

So, we know how important breathing is to our survival! But did you know there are other benefits that come from focusing on our breathing and breathing correctly? Let's talk about these.

Relaxing your mind

Gentle breathing exercises can relax the mind and body. Stress in small amounts is completely normal; however, it is now a central part of our everyday life and can easily become overwhelming to us. A growing amount of research on the breath has found that diaphragmatic breathing reduces amounts of the stress hormone cortisol and is one of the most effective ways of managing stress. Learning to breathe deeply triggers relaxation responses in the body and mind; it helps fight anxiety and panic attacks and releases endorphins that help to lift low mood and depression. Breathing techniques like alternate nostril breathing and square breathing help to calm the mind and soothe the nervous system.

Relaxing your body

Holding the breath, or breathing dysfunctionally, can lead to a build-up of tension in the muscles. Carrying so much tension in the body uses up a lot of our mental and physical energy, and it makes us uptight and more prone to muscle injuries.

Breathing correctly is essential when we exercise, particularly if we suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma. We demand more from our body during exercise so our breathing rate increases in order to keep up. Many runners learn to breathe from the belly in order to maximise their oxygen intake and provide more energy to their muscles. Check out our breathing tips for long distance runners here!  

Relaxing your internal body
Breathing not only impacts our mental and physical body, it also has a huge impact on the internal organs! Breathing deeply increases our blood oxygen levels, which then helps to improve our blood circulation. When we exhale longer than we inhale the vagus nerve (which runs from the neck down through the diaphragm)4 sends a signal to the brain to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness in the body and helps us drift off to sleep quicker. Breathing correctly strengthens the lungs and helps to prevent respiratory problems like bronchitis.

Simple breathing techniques you can try

Below, I've explained three different breathing techniques for you to try. These can all be useful when feeling stressed, as they help you to focus on your breathing and help you to breathe correctly.

The 3 stage breath

Anyone can do the 3 stage breath. It uses the full capacity of the lungs, and actually, we should be breathing like this all the time!

How to do the 3 stage breath:

1) Place one hand on your abdomen and inhale into the abdomen. Feel your hand rise and fall with each breath. Do this three times.
2) Next, place two hands on the ribcage, fingertips touching and pointing towards the middle of your body. Inhale into the abdomen, then the ribcage. As you exhale, exhale from the ribcage to the abdomen. On the inhale feel your ribcage expand and fingertips separate. On your exhale, feel your ribcage fall and let the fingertips come back together. Practice this three times.
3) Next, place one hand on the abdomen and one hand on the chest. Inhale first into the abdomen, then the ribcage, and then into the chest. Let your hands rise with the body on the inhale. On your exhale, exhale first from the chest, then ribcage, then abdomen. Allow the hands to fall with the body on the exhale. Practice this three times.

Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It balances and centralises the nervous system, engages both sides of the brain and regulates the flow of air through the nasal passages. If you have a cold, hayfever, or blocked sinuses alternate nostril breathing probably won’t be too comfortable for you! Wait until your nasal passages are a bit clearer before attempting this breathing technique.

How to do alternate nostril breathing:

  1. Inhale and exhale through both nostrils.
  2. Close off your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left nostril.
  3. Close off the left nostril with the right ring and pinkie fingers. Pause.
  4. Release the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril keeping the ring and pinkie fingers in place. Pause.
  5. Inhale deeply through the right nostril and close off the nostril with the thumb. Pause.
  6. Release the pinkie and ring finger and exhale out of the left nostril, keeping the thumb in place. Pause.
  7. Repeat for as long as comfortable.

Square breath

Like a square is equal in all sides, the square breath has equal inhalations, exhalations, and retentions. The breath should never be strained when you practice breathing techniques, so if you struggle to hold the retentions, are pregnant, or have high blood pressure just focus on the inhalations and exhalations alone. The square breath is an excellent technique to practice before going to bed as it has a calming effect on the body and turns awareness inwards.

How to do the square breath:

  1. Inhale for the count of four
  2. Hold the breath in for the count of four
  3. Exhale for the count of four
  4. Hold the breath out for the count of four


Now, this might be one you haven't heard of before! Beditation involves finding a quiet spot, somewhere you know you won't be disturbed, and practicing deep breathing to calm yourself before bed.

How to do Beditation

  1. Dim the lights and sit or lie down in a comfortable position on a blanket, comfy chair or soft carpet.
  2. Close your eyes and inhale slowly for a count of 3. Hold this breath for a second and exhale for a count of 4.
  3. Repeat step 2, three times or until you feel nice and relaxed.
  4. Keep breathing deeply and, without opening your eyes, focus your mind on what you are feeling right at this moment. Can you feel the soft blanket under your legs? Is there a cool breeze in the room? Do you feel warm and cosy in your pyjamas?
  5. Stay in this position with your eyes closed, taking deep breaths and focusing on your senses. Can you smell fresh laundry hanging up in the room next door? Do you hear the soft humming of your bedside lamp?

Really focus on these tiny details until you feel calm and ready to gently open your eyes and get into bed. You can repeat this once you get into bed if you need some further help drifting off!

Rest and digest, not fight or flight

When we experience stress our body is in a state of hyperarousal and a fight-or-flight response is activated, and while this response is excellent when we are faced with life-threatening situations, it can wreak havoc on our internal organs long-term. Abdominal breathing helps to combat our acute stress response by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and our rest-and-digest activities.

Herbal help

Taking herbal remedies alongside deep breathing techniques is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. Natural remedies containing valerian, such as Stress Relief Daytime, have been shown to have similar responses to drugs like diazepam without the same side effects. Valerian is thought to increase the amount of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) in the brain which helps to regulate nerve cells and has a calming effect on anxiety.5

Stress affects us all, and while it is completely normal we are not meant to experience it all the time! To effectively manage our stress it is important that we know how to trigger the body’s natural relaxation response.


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