Four Breathing Techniques For Stress Management

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated July 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people are familiar with the feeling of stress. It can be natural to experience stress occasionally, and it may be helpful in certain situations when you need motivation. However, experiencing constant or severe stress can prevent you from living a healthy life. If you have mild or moderate stress, the solution might include breathing exercises. Using breathing therapy and different types of breathing techniques, you may be able to emotionally regulate and calm your nervous system during moments of stress.

Breathing Techniques Can Help You Stay Calm And Content

Understanding The Stress Response

Stress can seem like a feeling, but it is a physical process in the body. Blood is rerouted from your internal organs and toward your muscles when you experience stress. Your heart rate may increase, and your breathing can become fast and shallow. There was a time in human history when this helped ancient ancestors avoid or confront threats to their well-being. 

As modern stressors are not often overcome by physical exertion, the stress response can sometimes be more of a nuisance. While you may not be able to control your blood pressure and heart rates consciously, you can control your breath. In turn, you may be able to lower your stress and reduce distressing physical and mental responses. 

Breathing Techniques For Nervous System Regulation

As stress is a physical and mental phenomenon, breathing techniques can help regulate your nervous system and emotions. Below are four breathing techniques that may help you reduce stress.

Technique One: Mindfulness And Meditation Breathing 

Mindfulness meditation can involve deep breathing exercises that you can practice during times of stress or when you're in a calm state of mind. Making mindfulness a habit can help you manage stress throughout the day. Mindfulness meditation uses your breath as a tool to help you understand the negative thought processes that are causing you stress.

To practice mindfulness meditation, follow these steps: 

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably and reduce distractions in your environment. 
  2. Try to focus on your breath. You don't need to try to breathe in a certain way for mindfulness meditation. Instead, try to pay attention to what your breath is doing now and how it feels in your body.
  3. Notice distractions. When a thought distracts you, note what it is and then return to focusing on your breath until the next distraction.
  4. Continue this exercise as you breathe until you feel grounded in your body and ready to move on with your day. 

After a few distractions, you might have more of an idea of what thoughts are most repetitive or difficult to avoid. Mindfulness meditation can help you acknowledge a thought and then let it go, which can be challenging. 

The longer you practice, the more effective you might be at mastering mindful meditation. You can work up to more extended periods with time and as you feel comfortable. Eventually, you might notice that you recognize stressful thoughts and know how to dismiss them before they cause further stress.  

Many people prefer mindfulness meditation in the morning rather than before bed. That way, they aren't carrying their mental inventory into the bedroom. However, each person is different, and many mindfulness practices can be completed before you sleep.  


Technique Two: Diaphragmatic Breathing On A Break

Diaphragmatic breathing can be done at any moment but may be most beneficial when you're experiencing stress. This breathing technique may be most effective when you can remove yourself from a stressful situation and practice it in an empty room, your parked car, or some other quiet location. Remove as much as is appropriate if you're wearing restrictive clothing like a necktie or tight top. 

Next, lie down on your back. You can lightly elevate your head and feet if possible or preferred, but it may not be necessary. Next, place one hand on your chest above your neck and the other on your stomach. Take slow, deep breaths. If you are experiencing a panic attack, it may take a few breaths to start to see the effects. Eventually, you might notice that your breath makes the hand over your stomach rise higher than the hand on your chest.

There's no particular amount of time that you should do this exercise. Consider repeating this exercise until you feel able to return to your day. If the situation that stresses you out is one that you can solve, you may return to the stressor to look for a solution. If the situation that stresses you out can't be solved, try finding ways to practice acceptance rather than worrying about what may not be in your control. One form of mindfulness that may help you accept a challenging situation is radical acceptance, a skill from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). 

Technique Three: Diaphragmatic Breathing In The Moment

It may not always be practical to be able to leave a stressful situation. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you can't practice diaphragmatic breathing. Instead of using your hands to ensure you are breathing from the belly rather than from the chest, use timing.

Breathe in deeply through the nose and slowly count to five. Next, use the timing to count to six while breathing out. Some people may find it helps more to breathe out through the mouth. However, if that doesn't help, breathe as you need. Breathing techniques can be adjusted according to your needs. 

Technique Four: Body Scanning 

A body scan is a breathing technique that can be effective before bed, although you can choose to do it anytime.  

Lie down so that the entire back of your body is in contact with the bed, or sit comfortably with your feet planted on the floor. Once comfortable, think about your toes. Imagine feeling the breath coming into your mouth and moving into your toes as you breathe in. Hold your breath for a moment and think about how your toes feel. 

When you exhale, imagine the breath leaving your toes, going up through your body, and out through your mouth. Next, do the same with the soles of your feet, the tops of your feet, and up your body— ending with your head. This breathing technique might not be productive or practical during a stressful situation, but it can help release stress at the end of the day.

Breathing Techniques Can Help You Stay Calm And Content

Counseling Options 

Although everyone may experience stress at some point, breathing techniques might not be your only coping mechanism. Some people experience stress as part of life, and others experience stress because of a mental illness like an anxiety disorder. If you feel the effects of stress and breathing exercises aren't enough to help you move forward, you might consider speaking to a professional. If you struggle to find time to reach out for in-person therapy, you can also try online counseling. 

Through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can receive counseling from anywhere you have an internet connection. Going to therapy might be intimidating if you don't know what to expect. If you're experiencing high anxiety levels, online therapy may help you feel safer and more secure as you open up to a therapist about your feelings. 

Online therapy can effectively treat mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and eating disorders, among others. One study found that participants using an internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention experienced a reduction in the prevalence and severity of anxiety symptoms. CBT is an approach that teaches people to take control of their thoughts. Over time, individuals learn to replace their unwanted or harmful thoughts with more positive, helpful ones. 


Stress can be a part of life. However, it may be beneficial to keep it at manageable levels. Unaddressed stress can lead to physical and mental complications. Different breathing techniques can provide a unique way to manage the stress you're experiencing in life. 

If these techniques don't work or aren't enough, intervention from a professional might be necessary. Working with an online therapist, you can learn new methods for tackling life's stressors and develop coping skills that allow you to foster a healthy mindset.

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