Breathing exercises offer an extremely simple, effective, and convenient way to relieve stress and reverse your stress response, reducing the negative effects of chronic stress. There are definite benefits of breathing exercises. While simple diaphragmic breathing can provide relaxation and stress relief, there are several different types of breathing exercises to try, each with its own twist. Here are several breathing exercises, some of which are commonly recommended, some of which are unique, and all of which can each offer help in managing stress. This is an easy exercise that only takes a few minutes. Here’s how.
Mindful Diaphragmic Breathing
Get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and start to notice your breath. Before you begin to alter it, pay attention to the pace and depth. Are you taking deep breaths or shallow ones? Are you breathing quickly or slowly? (Becoming aware of your breathing can help you to become more mindful of your body’s response to stress, and can help you to notice when you need to deliberately relax your breathing.)
Counting your breaths can be helpful, both for pacing and as a form of meditation. This technique helps with pacing–it enables you to elongate your breath and stretch out your exhales. There are a few ways to do this.
As you inhale, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, then breathe through your nose and slowly count down from five; on the exhale, let the air escape through your mouth and count back up to eight. Then repeat. This helps you to really empty your lungs and relax into each breath.
A variation of this is known as “4-7-8 breathing,” and is recommended by wellness expert Dr. Andrew Weil. With this option, you inhale for a count of four, wait for a count of seven, and exhale for a count of eight. This allows you to pause between breaths and really slow things down.
You may also find your own pace. Experiment with whatever ratio feels comfortable to you, and see if it helps you to feel relaxed. The act of counting as you breathe still helps you to maintain a steady pace and keep your mind on your breath and the present moment, so it is still more effective than simply breathing regularly and unconsciously.
Visualization Breathing: Inflating the Balloon
Get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you inhale, imagine that your abdomen is inflating with air like a balloon. As you exhale, imagine that the air is escaping the balloon slowly. Remember, you do not have to force the air out; it simply escapes on its own, in its own time. You may want to imagine the balloon as your favorite color, or that you are floating higher in the sky with each breath if this is relaxing for you. Regardless, the “inflating balloon” visualization can help you to breathe deeply from your diaphragm rather than engaging in shallow breathing that can come from stress.
Visualization Breathing: Releasing Your Stress
Get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and start diaphragmic breathing. As you inhale, imagine that all the stress in your body is coming from your extremities and into your chest. Then, as you exhale, imagine that the stress is leaving your body through your breath and dissipating right in front of you. Slowly, deliberately repeat the process. After several breaths, you should feel your stress begin to subside.
Deep, Cleansing Breath
Sometimes all you need to release stress from your shoulders, back, or the rest of your body is a few big, cleansing breaths. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and take in as much air as you comfortably can. Then release it, and really focus on emptying your lungs. (Many people hold air in their lungs after an exhale, so emptying your lungs on a deep exhale can help you to get more fresh oxygen into them.) Repeat this breathing exercise for a few breaths and release the tension in your back, your shoulders, and anywhere else it tends to reside.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing exercise variation has been practiced for thousands of years as a form of meditative breathing. As you inhale, place your finger over your right nostril and only breathe through your left. On the exhale, switch nostrils and only breathe through your right. You can breathe at whatever pace is comfortable for you, either a 5-8 ratio, a 4-7-8 ratio or whatever pace feels most relaxing for you (see “counted breathing,” above).