How to Breathe to Reduce Stress and Anxiety: A Step-by-Step Guide

I know what you’re thinking. “Breathe? I know how to breathe.”

photo credit: Tim Goedhart

I know what you’re thinking. “Breathe? I know how to breathe.”

It’s so easy, even a fish can do it.

And you would be right. But there’s a right way to breathe and a few ways you might be breathing ineffectively. Chances are, you might not be breathing properly.

Over time, you breathe a certain way. It can either be by inhaling too much air, taking shallow breaths, or unknowingly holding your breath. The way you breathe eventually becomes a habit.

Is the way you breathe just getting you by, or are you breathing in a way that optimizes how you work and perform?

Why Does It Matter How I Breathe?

Improper breathing can harm your sleep patterns and the way you feel during the day. Your breathing habits also have a negative impact on your muscles, brain, nervous system, and heart.

To break it down, here are a few risks you’ll face with breathing incorrectly:

  • Your nervous system gets overly excited, making you anxious and stressed out
  • Increased muscle tension and tightening blood vessels makes your heart work harder, increasing blood pressure and tiring you out faster
  • Your brain receives less oxygen, so it’s more difficult to use your brain to think through situations logically, which also creates dizziness and headaches

Not good. However, learning the proper way to breathe helps you to think and work better, and it’s also better for your health in general.

For instance, breathing correctly provides these benefits:

  • Reduced blood pressure, which is easier on the heart and helps you become more relaxed
  • Your nervous system is in equilibrium, lowering stress levels
  • Oxygen flows more easily to the brain, helping you to think with more clarity

While tense muscles and a quickly beating heart was useful back in the day to prepare yourself for running away from a lion, we don’t tend to encounter these types of problems nowadays (phew!). Instead, most of our stress and nervousness stems from mentally-related issues.

For example, you might find yourself short of breath when someone is berating you, you need to make a difficult decision, or you’re suddenly swamped with an onslaught of paperwork.

When we start breathing the wrong way, it works against us because we can’t think through issues and sometimes freeze up instead.

First off, let’s see what your breathing looks like.

Trying Using These Tools to Evaluate Your Breathing (Hint: You have these already)

You’ll need two things to get started: your hands.

Using your two hands is an easy and effective way to evaluate how you’re breathing right now.

While there are machines out there that evaluate muscle tension and heart rate, such as electromographs, electrocardiograms, and pneumographs, we won’t get into those. Your hands are good enough right now to use as feedback devices.

photo credit: Jared Rice

Right now, we’ll be doing an exercise now that involves your hands and your breathing.

To begin with, place one hand flat over your chest and the other on your stomach, where your diaphragm lies.

Now, breathe how you normally do on a regular basis. I know, it’s tempting to alter your breathing for this exercise, but try to resist. Breathe as if you were doing a simple task, such as surfing the net.

How did it feel? What did you notice?

Make a mental note of what happened before moving onto the next step.

With one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach again, try breathing short breaths with your mouth so that your breathing is shallow.

This time, what did you notice? How did it compare to your regular breathing?

You might have noticed that your chest expands and contracts, while your diaphragm doesn’t move as much. This is similar to how you might breathe when you’re under stress. Your breaths become shorter, your shoulders hunch up, and you feel your chest tightening.

Or, conversely, you might hold your breath when you’re in a tense situation.

Even if you think that your breathing remains regular when you’re stressed out, breathing is something we do subconsciously. It’s very likely your breathing changes according to your mental or physical state.

So today, we’re going to go over proper breathing to improve your health and help you remain calm under stressful situations.

How to Breathe

Ever hear someone tell you, “Just take a deep breath”?

While that’s correct, it’s only part of the story. The other important component of breathing properly is to exhale all that air. When someone tells you to take a deep breath, what might end up happening is that you breathe in a lot of air, but end up holding it in and forget to breathe for awhile (it happens).

So step-by-step, we’ll go through the breathing exercise together.

  1. Just as you did before, place one hand over your chest and the other over your stomach.
  2. Sigh, as if you just had a long day. Let your shoulders drop and your muscles relax. At the same time, don’t let all the air out of your lungs — the point of sighing is to relax your upper body.
  3. Close your mouth again and pause. Stop breathing and count to three.
  4. While keeping your mouth closed, slowly inhale air through your nose. Be aware and mindful of the way you inhale. Your stomach should expand, while your chest remains relatively still. Once again, pause and count to three.
  5. Finally, breathe out by opening your mouth and letting your stomach go back in. This is your diaphragm contracting.
  6. Once again, pause.
  7. Repeat the process from steps 3 to 7.

It’s best to try breathing like this when you have some spare time to yourself. Do it when you’re in a calm mood and without distractions that can make you tense. Even setting aside two to three minutes a day to go through this exercise will help you to practice getting better at breathing calmly.

How Was It?

If you get anxious or stressed easily, the breathing exercise outlined above may be difficult at first. You’re likely not used to taking slow, deep breaths and pausing in between breaths.

That’s fine! Proper breathing takes time to practice. Let your hands provide you with feedback on how well you’re breathing.

Originally published at medium.com

Self Improvement, Meditation

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