Stressful situations are a part of everyday life, but it can be a challenge managing the daily grind without feeling the heat. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or in an anxiety-inducing thought pattern, your body’s stress response naturally kicks in — breathing becomes rapid, your heart races, and blood pressure rises.
If you’re focused on the source of stress, you may be less conscious of the physiological impact, so you don’t take action to reverse it. This unawareness, unfortunately, leads to prolonged states of stress. Left unchecked, chronic stress can affect your health and relationships, and has been linked to serious conditions such as hypertension, anxiety disorders and addiction, according to the Yale Stress Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
The good news is that you can build in stress-relieving “breathing breaks” throughout the day to break the stress cycle and restore calm. Simply make it a point to step away from your daily activities for a few minutes every couple of hours and focus on your breathing.
If you’re old enough, you might remember decades ago — before the mountains of research on smoking’s harmful effects — when stepping outside to smoke was considered an acceptable work break. Why not institute breathing breaks instead?
Unlike smoke breaks, breathing breaks are actually good for you! And breathing is one of the most effective ways to manage stress because it leverages your own physiology and requires no special tools. In as little as 90 seconds, deep breathing stimulates a physiological relaxation response that inhibits stress hormone production, lowers blood pressure and decreases heart rate, according to research.
Try incorporating the breathing exercises below into your own breaks to relieve stress and restore calm. It’s important to inhale through your nose, if possible, but you can exhale out of your nose or mouth, based on your comfort level. Unless otherwise noted in the instructions, perform the breathing exercises for about eight to 10 breaths, which equates to anywhere from two to three minutes — perfect timing for a breathing break.
This is a great starter exercise for anyone new to breathing techniques. There are no special instructions aside from keeping your mind focused on your breathing. From any position, wherever you are, begin lengthening and deepening your breath. While you do so, focus all your attention on the sounds and sensations of your breathing. Feel the expansion and contraction of your rib cage. Direct all your senses to follow the path of air in through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs and out again. Listen to the sound of your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing, which is always happening in the present moment.
This exercise is aptly named because the four phases of each breath (inhale, pause, exhale, pause) are done at an even count, like the four even sides of a box. You can practice this at a variety of different breath lengths. Four is a popular count, but if you feel comfortable extending your breath to five or six, go for it.
Example of box breathing at a four-count:
Inhale for a count of four.
Pause, holding your breath for a count of four.
Exhale for a count of four.
Pause without breathing for a count of four.
This breathing technique simply follows a 5-7-3 pattern of inhaling for a count of five, exhaling for a count of seven and pausing after the exhale for a count of three. You can follow along with this video for more detailed instruction.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a relaxing yogic-style technique, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil in 2015. Like the 5-7-3 and box breathing exercises, it follows a specific pattern. To practice it, you breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts and then exhale for eight counts.
With this exercise, you’ll want to close your eyes so you can visualize spelling out the word “peace.” Lengthen and deepen your breathing to follow this pace:
Inhale for a count of five.
Exhale for a count of seven.
After exhaling, pause for a count of five.
Once you establish the pattern, begin spelling out P-E-A-C-E in your mind during the five-count pause.
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic style of breathing that has been specifically shown in research to help ease anxiety.
To practice, sit comfortably, resting your left hand in your lap. Fold down the middle three fingers of your right hand, leaving your thumb and pinky extended. Traditional yoga has you leave your ring finger extended as well, but I have found it’s difficult for many people to hold that hand position comfortably, so I cue extending the thumb and pinky only.
Use your right thumb to close off the right nostril.
Inhale slowly through your left nostril at a pace that feels right for you.
Close off your left nostril with your pinky, releasing your thumb off your right nostril.
Exhale through your right nostril at a comfortable pace.
Inhale through the right nostril.
Use your thumb to close off the right nostril.
Exhale through the left nostril.
The directions above are for one round of two breaths. Try five rounds to start, gradually building up to more, if desired.
After trying the exercises above, decide which ones work best for you and begin doing them consistently as part of your own prescribed breathing breaks. It’s also good to practice them anytime you feel stressed and need to reconnect to a sense of calm in the present moment.
With regular focus on your breathing, you should start to notice that your overall breathing rate begins to slow and that you are less reactive to stressors.