4 Breathing Techniques For Stress Management

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It’s natural to experience stress from time to time, but it can have a variety of negative impacts on health and well-being if it’s chronic and/or not managed appropriately. That’s why developing healthy coping strategies can be so vital, and breathing techniques for stress are one type to consider. For mild to moderate stress, engaging in breathing therapy or practicing a simple breathing technique may help you regain emotional control and calm your nervous system during moments of stress.

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Breathing techniques can help you stay calm and content

Understanding the stress response and the power of deep breath

Most people can identify the emotional feeling associated with stress, but it involves a specific physical process that takes place in the body as well. When you experience stress, your body enters fight-or-flight mode to prepare you to deal with a potential threat. Blood is rerouted from your internal organs and toward your muscles and your body temperature may rise. Your heart rate may increase, and you might start fast and shallow breathing. 

While these biological preparations may have helped early humans survive in the face of danger, modern stressors are not often overcome by physical exertion—which means the stress response can sometimes be unhelpful and cause additional distress. So what can you do to prevent it from taking over and having significant consequences for your health and wellness? While you can’t consciously control your blood pressure or heart rate, you can control your breath. With the right breathing techniques, you may be able to do so in order to lower your stress levels and reduce distressing physical and mental responses to stressful situations. 

Breathing exercises for nervous system control

Stress is both a physical and mental phenomenon, and breathing techniques can help control your nervous system and your emotions. Below are four breathing techniques for stress that may help you reduce stress. Note that if you have a respiratory condition, you may want to ask your doctor before engaging in breathing exercises. If you find yourself feeling short of breath or otherwise uncomfortable during an exercise, it may be best to stop.

1. Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation can be practiced in many different ways, and some involve deep breathing exercises to help you tune into the present moment. You can also use mindful breathing as a tool to help you become aware of and, eventually, shift the negative thought processes that may be causing or contributing to the stress you feel. 

Plus, research suggests that practicing mindfulness in general may bring a variety of other benefits, from improving sleep quality to lessening anxiety to reducing high blood pressure and more. You can use mindful breathing exercises in times of acute stress or, for the most benefit, practice them as part of your daily routine to help you become more mindful and resilient to stress in your everyday life.

To practice mindful breathing, you can try following these simple steps: 

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably in a place where you’re unlikely to be disturbed.

  2. Focus on your normal breathing. You don't need to try to breathe in a certain way for mindfulness meditation; just pay attention to your natural breathing pattern and how it feels in your body.

  3. Notice distractions. When a thought or a sound distracts you, note it and then return to focusing on your breath until the next distraction arises. If you find yourself getting carried away with thoughts, thinking of a focus word (such as “calm” or “present”) in your mind could help.

  4. Continue this exercise as you breathe until you feel grounded in your body and ready to move on with your day. 10–15 minutes is often recommended.

2. Diaphragmatic

Belly breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, can be done at any time, but it may be most beneficial when you're experiencing acute stress. In instances like these, you might take a break to remove yourself from the stressful situation and retreat to an empty room, your car, or another quiet location to practice this technique. If you're wearing a restrictive clothing item like a necktie or a tight necklace, it may help to loosen or remove it.

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Next, lie down on your back, if possible, with knees slightly bent. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach. Close your eyes and begin to take slow, deep breaths. Eventually, you may notice that your breath makes the hand over your stomach rise higher than the hand on your chest. If you’re experiencing a panic attack, you may need a few extra breaths to start to see the effects, as panic takes longer to quell in many cases. If you’re unable to step away to do this exercise, you can do it in place by counting (count steadily to five as you inhale and to six as you exhale, mouth wide) instead of using your hands to ensure you’re breathing from your belly.

There's no particular amount of time that you should do this exercise for. Just consider repeating it by taking at least a few deep breaths until you feel calmer and 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, you might 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). 

3. Alternate nostril

This practice is a type of breath control that’s often part of yoga, an ancient practice that originated in India. There are a few different types of alternate nostril breathing, but the basic concept involves using your middle fingers to plug your left nostril and then breathing in slowly through your right nostril with your mouth closed, then switching to plug the right side and exhaling through the left. Repeat two to three times in a comfortable position with eyes closed. Research suggests this type of controlled breathing may promote calm and even lower blood pressure.

4. Body scanning

A body scan is a mindfulness and breathing technique that can be especially effective before bed because of its potential relaxation effects, although you can choose to do it at any time. This breathing technique might not be productive or practical during an acutely stressful situation, but it may help release stress at the end of the day.

Begin by laying down so that the entire back of your body is in contact with the bed or mat, or sitting in a chair with your feet roughly hip-width apart on the floor. Once comfortable, think about your toes. Feel the breath as you inhale slowly through your nose and imagine the air moving all the way down to and into your toes. Hold your breath for a moment and think about how your toes feel. When you exhale through the mouth, 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 all the way up your body, ending with your head. 

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Breathing techniques can help you stay calm and content

Learning effective ways to relax through therapy

While a breathing exercise may help you manage stressful times, it’s not always enough. In many cases, it can be helpful to meet with a therapist for additional support and guidance related to stress management. They can empower you to find healthy ways to express your emotions, develop positive coping techniques, and address major stressors in your life. If you’re experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder or another mental health condition, they can help you address these as well. 

Finding a therapist near you can be difficult and time-consuming, and traveling to regular in-person appointments isn’t feasible for everyone. Online therapy can be a more convenient alternative in cases like these. Through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can receive counseling virtually with a licensed therapist from anywhere you have an internet connection. 

A growing body of research suggests that online therapy may be an effective way to treat mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD in many cases. For example, one study found that individuals participating in an internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention experienced a reduction in perceived stress levels and other related benefits. CBT is an approach that teaches people to replace their unwanted or harmful thoughts with more positive, helpful ones, and it may be administered online or in person. 

Takeaway

Most people will experience stress from time to time, so learning strategies to manage it in a healthy way can be beneficial for overall health and well-being. Learning breathing techniques for stress is one potentially powerful way to help manage your stress levels. Examples of breath exercises include mindful breathing, belly breathing, pursed lip breathing, and body scans. If you’re looking for additional support in managing stress, you might consider meeting with a therapist.
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