We all get stressed. According to the Global Organization for Stress, a large portion of adults report high levels of stress year after year. And many report that their stress has increased over the past 12 months.
So what’s one to do? Though stress is a natural part of life, there are times where it can feel debilitating, and nothing sounds sweeter than immediate relief.
During these times, your body is in “fight or flight mode.” It’s preparing to confront danger, even if no real danger is present. For example, your body may perceive relationship issues or traffic on your commute as “danger” when, in reality, these events are not actually that threatening.
That’s where breathing comes in. According to Harvard Health, deep breathing helps your nervous system transition from that fight or flight stress response into a more relaxed mode known as “rest and digest.”
Breathing deeply probably will feel unnatural at first — but once you get the hang of it, it may become your go-to way of reducing tension in both your body and mind.
The next time you’re frustrated at work, having trouble getting to sleep, or just want to unwind and relieve the general stress of the day, try these five breathing techniques that are proven to be wonderfully cathartic and stress-mitigating.
1. Equal Breathing
This breathing technique is exactly what it sounds like: Making sure that your inhales and exhales match each other in length. When executing equal breathing, you’ll want to choose a number of seconds to count to that isn’t too easy but also isn’t too difficult — so you’ll be able to maintain a balance of focus and effortlessness. Typically, inhales and exhales between 3-5 seconds in length work best.
You can try changing up the length of your breath, and see what feels best for your body. Whatever you do, try to close your eyes as you’re practicing equal breathing so that you can further relax into the practice. Continue matching the length of your inhales and exhales for several minutes in order to reap the stress-relieving benefits of this technique.
2. Diaphragmatic or Abdominal Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation of all breathing practices. This technique involves breathing fully in through your nose and into your belly so that it expands outwards, and then breathing slowly out of your mouth as your stomach deflates.
Though this may seem simple, most of the time people forget to implement diaphragmatic breathing and, instead, take shallow breaths into the chest. This is a habitual way of breathing, but it’s not beneficial in reducing stress. Breathing into your chest actually keeps your body in fight or flight mode, rather than coaxing it into rest and digest mode.
Implementing this abdominal breathing technique when you’re stressed will likely help you relax, lower your blood pressure, and aid in coping with a host of mental health issues.
3. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing requires a bit more interactivity but, rest assured, this technique is well worth it. This particular way of breathing works to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain, lowers the heart rate to relieve bodily tension, and, of course, relieves stress.
To practice alternate nostril breathing, use your right thumb to softly close your right nostril. Inhale slowly through the left nostril, close it with your ring finger, and pause. Then open and exhale mindfully though the right nostril.
Now, inhale slowly through your right nostril and then close it with your thumb. Pause before exhaling through your left nostril. Repeat this pattern from left to right nostril five to ten times to achieve a sense of equanimity throughout your nervous system.
4. 4-7-8 Breathing
The 4-7-8 breathing technique isn’t only an effective way to alleviate stress — it’s also a useful trick to get to sleep if you’re having trouble getting a good night’s rest.
“[4-7-8 breathing is a] natural tranquilizer for the nervous system that eases the body into a state of calmness and relaxation,” Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained medical doctor with a focus on holistic health, told MedicalDaily.
To practice this breath, whether you’re lying in bed or upright at work, begin by exhaling completely though your mouth. Then, closing your mouth, inhale slowly though your nose to a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Then, exhale completely out of your mouth for a count of eight. This is one cycle. Repeat it three times to begin to feel the calm-inducing effects.
5. Pursed Lip Breathing
Another versatile stress-busting method is the pursed lip breath. Along with having a soothing effect on its practitioner, this breath also works to alleviate the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or shortness of breath.
To practice pursed lip breathing, relax your shoulders and neck and inhale slowly through your nose, to a count of two, keeping your mouth closed. Then, purse your lips as if you were about to whistle and proceed to exhale slowly through pursed lips to a count of four.