When you’re stressed or anxious, your breathing becomes shallower, your chest may feel tight, and you may breath rapidly, hyperventilating, or forget to exhale altogether. Over time, ongoing stress may negatively affect almost every system in your body from your cardiovascular to your digestive system. It can also cause a habit of shallow, constricted breathing.
Thankfully, deep breathing techniques are some of the most powerful, inexpensive, and quickest ways to relieve stress in the moment. They can also teach your nervous system to stay relaxed regardless of continuous stressors in your life.
Today, we’re sharing two of our favorite deep breathing techniques to help you control your stress response in moments of crisis and lower your overall stress when practiced regularly.
Calming Your Nervous System with Breath
Bigger, deeper breaths calm your mind and body and tell your nervous system to relax. When you’re feeling super relaxed, notice your breath. Your belly fills, your chest rises, you’re likely breathing slowly in and out of your nose. This relaxed breathing is key to your body’s stress response, according an article by the University of Washington School of Medicine.
In the article, a neuropsychologist explains that the autonomic nervous system, which controls your heart rate and digestion, has two parts that cannot be turned on at the same time. One controls your fight-or-flight response (the sympathetic nervous system) and the other controls the relax and rest response (the parasympathetic nervous system). When one part of your nervous system is activated, the other cannot be.
By activating your parasympathetic nervous system with deep breathing, you’re basically telling your body to chill. Breathing deeply seems simple, but it may not come easily. Practicing a breathing technique when you’re relaxed, makes it easier to use the technique during times of distress. These techniques can also help quiet your mind for yoga or meditation.
Deep Breathing Begins with Mindful Breathing
Before learning a breathing technique, it’s recommended that you sit or lay and simply notice your breath. Are you breathing in through your nose or mouth? Are your exhales the same length as your inhales? Does your belly visibly fill and deplete?
Now, increase the breath going into your diaphragm by lightly holding your belly or laying a light item on your belly and purposely filling your belly with breath. Practiced daily, intentional breathing can elicit the relaxation response, create mindfulness and relax your body. It can also help you notice when stress or anxiety cause your breath to shorten or quicken.
Three-Part Breath or Dirga Pranayama
The first breathing technique we’re sharing, the three-part breath or Dirga Pranayama in yoga, follows and builds upon mindful breathing.
Sitting or lying, imagine your lungs – they’re huge, stretching from your collar bone to your lowest rib and filling your entire chest cavity! As you breathe in through your nose, imagine your lungs have three sections and you’re filling them a section at a time. First, you fill the lower belly, then the heart area, and then the very top of your chest. You might put your hand in each area as you inhale to feel the air filling that area.
Breathe into each area for two counts: lower belly, heart area, then the very top of your chest. Release your breath in opposite fashion, from the top of your chest, then the heart area, then your belly, pulling your naval in as all the air goes out. Watch this video to see Dirga Pranayama in action.
Don’t overfill your chest so much it feels like bursting! Your breath should still be smooth, filling your lungs completely without strain. As you practice the three-part breath, you can experiment with longer counts in and out or just longer exhales. You may also try holding your breath a count at the top and the bottom.
Please note, pregnant women and people with heart or blood pressure conditions should not practice breath holds without talking to a health care provider first! Additionally, if breathing exercises cause dizziness, breathe regularly until the dizziness subsides.
Straw Breathing or Pursed Lip Breathing
Straw breathing, or pursed lip breathing are great techniques if you’ve noticed you have a habit of rapid, shallow breathing. It’s recommended by doctors and the American Lung Association to help improve lung capacity and strength, especially for asthmatics and people with lung disorders. It’s also a powerful tool against anxiety that can help you quickly regain calmness. If you have a straw, have it near and sit comfortably.
As above, begin the practice with a few minutes of mindful breathing. Notice the pattern of your breathing and your heart rate. After a few regular breaths, hold your straw while you inhale through your nose. Exhale slowly through the straw. Repeat – in through your nose, out through the straw.
After a few breaths, you can add a breathing count and exhale longer than you inhale, which may happen naturally because of the straw. For example, try breathing in four counts and exhaling six or eight counts.
In this video, the person demonstrates straw breathing with a couple of variations, such as starting with a small straw piece because it’s easier than a full straw. Another variation is blowing into a glass of water to increase intensity and build lung capacity.
No Straw? No Worries | Pursed Lip Breathing
Don’t have a straw? No worries. The American Lung Association skips the straw and calls this exercise pursed lips breathing. Instead of exhaling through a straw, purse your lips as if there’s a straw. Imagine blowing through a straw, blowing bubbles through a wand, or blowing dandelion seeds. Follow the same steps: breathe in through your nose and out slowly through pursed lips. Aim for an exhale that’s longer than your inhale.
If you love this exercise and would like a “straw” handy, you can get a mindful breathing necklace with a mini straw or whistle. Breathing necklaces with chewable silicone straws are also a great tool for anxious children.
Deep Breathing is a Tool, Not a Cure
In both breathing exercises, the slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming and relaxing your mind and body, while quieting the anxiety-causing sympathetic nervous system. They also shift your focus from whatever situation is causing the stress to the rhythm and condition of your breath. These exercises may help you with insomnia, moments of crisis, and overall anxiety.
While deep breathing exercises soothe a frazzled mind and body, they are not a cure for anxiety or any mental health condition. If you are suffering, please seek professional help. Likewise, if you are having trouble breathing, please consult your health care provider immediately.