4 Breathing Techniques For Stress Management

Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

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Everyone deals with stress. There's nothing wrong with experiencing stress from time to time. However, if you let stress get the best of you, it can prevent you from working at your best and living at your happiest and healthiest.

If you have mild or moderate stress, the solution might be as simple as breathing.

Understanding The Stress Response

Stress is a feeling, but it's also a physical process. During stress, blood is rerouted away from your internal organs and toward your muscles. Your heart rate increases, and your breath becomes fast and shallow. There was a time in human history when this would have helped our ancient ancestors avoid or confront challenges. Because our stressors are now not usually overcome by physical exertion, the stress response is more of a nuisance than anything.

While we can't consciously control our blood pressure and heart rates, we can control our breath. That can help us to control our stress.

Breathing Techniques

Just like stress is both a physical and a mental phenomenon, breathing techniques can help to calm the stress response in both mental and physical ways. Specifically, there are three basic ways in which breathing can help to prevent stress. We'll go over each of them briefly here and then discuss these as well as other techniques more thoroughly later in the article.

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First, the mindfulness movement - which is gaining popularity in both popular culture and psychology - encourages meditation daily, not just when you're stressed. Focusing on your breathing helps you to understand the kind things that are causing you stress and how to ground yourself. Most stress for some people isn't caused by real problems but by baseless and needless concerns called "the monkey mind." Practicing mindfulness meditation can help some people to prevent these concerns from causing stress problems.

The next kind of breathing exercise is to be done while you are stressed. It's called diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing involves consciously breathing deeply from the stomach rather than from the chest. This serves two purposes. It helps to distract from the stressors, and it helps to send signals to the brain that the body is not actually in danger.

Breathing Technique 1: Mindfulness Meditation

As mentioned above, mindfulness meditation is a breathing exercise that is done when you aren't stressed. However, it does help you to manage stress throughout the day. That's because mindfulness meditation uses your breath as a tool to help you better understand the thought processes that cause stress.

To practice mindfulness meditation, sit or lie down comfortably. Try to focus on your breath. You don't need to try to breathe in a certain way for mindfulness meditation - that's the other exercises. Instead, just pay attention to what your breath is doing at the moment. Try to focus only on your breath and how it feels.

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This probably won't go on for very long before something distracts you. That's okay. In fact, it's the point. So, when a thought distracts you, take note of what it is and then go back to focusing on your breath until the next distraction comes along. After a couple of distractions, you should have a better idea of what kinds of thoughts distract you. You also get a lot of practice with acknowledging a thought and then letting it go. That can be hard on its own.

The longer you practice, the bigger the benefits you will notice, and the sooner you will notice them. Try to practice for at least a few minutes each day for a few days each week. Eventually, try to work up to around ten minutes every day.

Eventually, you will notice that you become aware of your stressful thought and know how to dismiss them before they cause undue stress. It's probably best not to do it before bed because you might fall asleep before taking your mental inventory. A lot of people like to do this exercise in the morning. If you want a breathing exercise to put you to sleep, skip to Breathing Technique 4.

Breathing Technique 2: Diaphragmatic Breathing On A Break

Diaphragmatic breathing can be done when you aren't stressed - and you may find it calming. However, it's particularly useful when you are stressed. This breathing technique is useful for when you can get away from a stressful situation to an empty room, your car, or some other quiet location. The next breathing exercise is for situations in which you can't leave the situation. If you can leave the stressful situation, that should be your priority - especially if the situation isn't just stressful, it's dangerous.

If you're wearing any restrictive clothing like a necktie or tight top, remove as much as is appropriate for the situation. Next, lie down on your back. You can lightly elevate your head and feet if you like or if it's possible or appropriate, but this isn't necessary.

Next, place one hand on your chest just above your neck and place the other hand on your stomach. Take slow, deep breaths. If you have a panic attack, this alone may take a couple of moments.

Eventually, you should notice that your breath makes the hand over your stomach rise higher than the hand on your chest.

There's no special amount of time that you should do this exercise - just do it until you are calmed down. If the situation that stressed you out is one that you can solve, return to the stressor to look for a solution. If the situation that stressed you out can't be solved, try to find a to accept it and control what you can instead of worrying about what you can't.

Breathing Technique 3: Diaphragmatic Breathing In The Moment

Of course, you can't always leave a stressful situation. That doesn't mean that you can't practice diaphragmatic breathing. Instead of using your hands to make sure that you are breathing from the belly rather than from the chest, using timing.

Breathe in deeply through the nose and slowly count to five. It should take you as long to count to five as it takes for you to fill your lungs. Next, use the timing to count to six while breathing out. Some people think that it helps more to breathe out through the mouth. However, if that doesn't help, don't feel like you have to do it.

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Breathing Technique 4: Body Scan

This is one breathing technique that's great to do before bed - though you don't have to do it before bed. 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.

Now, think about your toes. As you breathe in, imagine feeling the breath coming into your mouth and moving into your toes. Hold your breath for a moment, and think about how your toes feel. Now, exhale, and imagine that the breath is 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, and up your body ending with your head. If you can stay up that long, that is.

This breathing technique might not be best for during a stressful situation, but it's great for releasing stress at the end of the day.

When Breathing Techniques Aren't Enough

As mentioned in the introduction, everyone experiences stress, but breathing techniques don't help everyone manage it. That's because some people experience stress as part of life, and some people experience stress because of a disorder like anxiety.

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If you feel like you get stressed a lot and breathing exercises like those discussed above aren't enough to help, you might have anxiety. If you think you have anxiety, talk to your healthcare provider about it right away. Your doctor might not be able to help you right away. That's because, to be diagnosed, stress has to keep you from living your life in a healthy and normal way for more than at least two weeks. However, let your doctor know that you are concerned can help them establish a time window to get you properly diagnosed as soon as possible. On the other hand, if your symptoms are severe, your doctor might be able to diagnose you right away.

Once you are diagnosed, you will have access to medication. Many people don't like the idea of medication, but no one is going to make you take medication - provided you're a legal adult. That's because, while anxiety can be scary, it doesn't put most people in danger.

That doesn't mean that anxiety shouldn't be taken seriously. Untreated anxiety can lead to substance abuse problems as well as health problems like heart disease. While most people who take medication for anxiety have a positive experience and few side effects, there are other treatment options.

Thinking About Therapy

If breathing techniques aren't enough to manage your anxiety, medication isn't the only form of professional help that you can pursue. If you have anxiety but don't want to take medication, ask your healthcare provider about talking to a therapist instead. If you have a diagnosis, your health insurance plan may even help you afford therapy or counseling.

If you don't have a diagnosis, you can still look into therapy or counseling - it just might be harder for you to afford.

One way to make therapy or counseling more affordable is to find an online therapy program.

BetterHelp's online therapy program works by connecting users with one of the thousands of licensed and professional online therapists over the internet. This is less expensive and more flexible than more conventional in-person sessions but still gives access to quality, professional help.

For more information about how online therapy can help you or someone you care about, visit https://betterhelp.com/online-therapy/ .

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