Harnessing the Power of Breathwork for Stress Management

Science
October 16, 2021

When ignored, stress can have a significant impact on our overall health. Although it’s commonly advised to “take a deep breath” when we’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be hard to imagine a significant connection between stress and breathing. As it turns out, making use of our respiratory system is an enormously effective way to take control of our health.

Breathwork for stress can be the key to helping you better manage your overall health. This article will help you understand how with the following information:

  • Stress and breathing: how are they connected?
  • 6 breathing exercises for stress relief
  • Try it now: 9 minute breathwork for stress video
  • 4 research studies on the impact of breathwork on stress reduction

If you would also like to learn about breathing techniques to help you cope with anxiety, check out our guide to breathwork for anxiety.

Stress and breathing: how are they connected?

A woman floating on her back in water

Though we may not always notice, stress takes a lasting toll on both our mental and physical health. The way we breathe can either help us relieve this stress or sustain it. We’ll explore the reasons behind this below.

What is stress and how does it affect your wellbeing?

Stress is the emotional or mental toll taken by adverse or overly-demanding circumstances. It differs from anxiety in that stress is, by definition, caused by an outside source such as work obligations or interpersonal conflict.

Stress triggers our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and specifically the “fight-or-flight” response, which results in a series of physiological responses. In addition to shortness of breath, stress can cause elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, impeded digestive function and raised blood pressure. These symptoms are not only unpleasant in the moment, but can take a significant toll on one’s overall health over time.

Can stress cause shortness of breath?

So can stress cause shortness of breath? Absolutely! Shortness of breath and stress are heavily linked as it is usually the first and most noticeable symptom of stress, and is a result of the fight or flight response. Your body thinks you’re in danger, so it raises your heart rate and causes breathing to become rapid and shallow in preparation for you to either flee or fight off an enemy.

This physical response is usually offset by the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or the “rest-and-digest” response, which offsets the “fight-or-flight” responses once the body gets the signal that the danger is gone. Symptoms of chronic stress arise when life is consistently stressful, and the “rest-and-digest” therefore never gets a chance to kick in. This is when we can use breathwork to take our body’s responses into our own hands.

How can breathwork help relieve stress?

So how can breathing exercises reduce stress? Doctors, yogis, and therapists alike have used breathwork for PTSD, stress, grief and physiological health for centuries, and its impact on the Autonomic Nervous System has more recently been confirmed by modern medical science.

The Autonomic Nervous System controls the body’s functions that operate without conscious effort, such as blood vessel dilation, heart rate, and digestion; breathing is a unique function of the ANS in that while it is involuntary (i.e. we continue breathing without thinking about it), we do have the ability to take control of it. By controlling our breathing, we can actually send a signal back to the other ANS functions that the danger is gone, which will trigger the parasympathetic, or “rest-and-digest” response and alleviate the physical symptoms of stress.

6 breathing exercises for stress relief

Many cultures have used breathwork as medicine, and the techniques range from lengthy and complex, to practices as simple as breathing exercises for stress. Here are some easy deep breathing exercises for stress relief.

1. Deep belly breathing

A man practicing deep breathing next to another man using a sound bowl

How does diaphragmatic breathing reduce stress? When we’re stressed, anxious or panicky, our breath tends to become more shallow; this is our body preparing to sprint away from danger, or fight it off. Our breathing motion becomes isolated to the upper half of our body, and the lungs have trouble finding enough room to expand to their full extent. Deep belly breathing technique involves releasing tension in our ribs and abdomen to make room in the body for the lungs to fully expand; this creates a feeling as if we are breathing air into our lower body.

To practice deep belly breathing: 

  • Lie or sit in a comfortable position
  • place one hand on your lower belly below your navel, and one on your chest
  • take a slow inhale all the way in through your nose, and focus on moving the hand on your lower belly, while not moving the hand on your chest. Your belly should push out further than your chest.
  • Release the exhale through your nose or mouth. Repeat.

2. Yoga breathing

Yogic breathwork, or pranayama, is many people’s entry point into the practice of breathwork. Chances are, if you’ve been to a yoga class, you’ve been told to focus on the breath or even taught how to practice one or more types of pranayama. There are countless reasons that these methods have been practiced for centuries; for starters, they’re effective and easy to practice on your own.

To practice yoga breathing for stress relief:

  • Research different pranayama breathing exercises for stress relief and choose a few for beginners.
  • Download a breathwork app and follow along with guided sessions.
  • Attend a virtual or in-person yoga or breathwork class.

3. Alternate Nostril breathing

A woman practicing alternate nostril breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing is a very easy technique to practice; it is simply to plug one nostril gently while slowly inhaling and exhaling. It brings focus into the body and intention to the action of breathing, while also unblocking the sinuses. 

To practice nostril breathing:

  • Sitting comfortably, exhale completely through your nose. Use the right thumb to block the right nostril and inhale through the left.
  • At the height of the inhalation, release the right nostril and block the left nostril with the right pinky finger. Exhale through the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the right nostril, then return to blocking the right nostril, exhaling through the left. Repeat this pattern for as long as you like.

4. Victorious breathing

Ujjayi or Victorious Breath provides multiple benefits; it both slows your breathing, and assists in focusing on the breath through its intentional tensing of the throat muscles, reducing the risk of distraction and reaching a meditative state. 

To try victorious breathing: 

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your shoulders relaxed.
  • Constrict the muscles you would use to clear your throat just slightly.
  • Inhale slowly through your nose until your chest feels full.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 6.
  • Relax your facial muscles, then exhale through your mouth. You should be able to hear a friction sound.
  • Breathe as you naturally would for a few minutes.
  • Repeat these steps as many times as desired, up to 5 times per day.

5. Lion’s Breath breathing

A person lying on the ground with their tongue stuck out

Simsahana, or Lion’s Breath, is a unique and rather fun way to reduce stress. One of its key benefits is helping to release tension in the face and jaw; this can have a calming effect, with the added benefit of alleviating stress headaches. Plus, to be frank, it looks a bit silly, which reminds us that even meditative practices don’t always have to be so serious.

To practice Lion’s Breath:

  • Sit or kneel with your seat resting on your feet. Sit up tall and inhale all the way through the nose.
  • On your exhale, open your mouth and eyes as wide as possible, sticking out your tongue all the way. Exhale forcefully and make a “ha” sound with the breath. Some recommend also crossing the eyes at the same time.
  • Relax your face, closing the mouth and eyes on the inhale. Repeat as much as feels good.

6. Morning breathing

Morning Breathing is a breathing technique that yoga connaisseurs will recognize as similar to Sun Salutation. Both practices have names that refer to morning, and for good reason; this technique combines deep breathing and stretching in a way that is both an intuitive and beneficial way to start your day. One of the more common barriers to deep breathing is muscle tension, particularly in the back and torso. This method will help release that tension, improve circulation and get the oxygen flowing. 

To practice Morning Breathing:

  • From standing, exhale as you bend over at the waist with legs slightly bent, dangling your head and arms. Take a moment to feel the stretch in your back, neck and hamstrings.
  • On your inhale, slowly roll up, stacking one vertebra on top of the next, until you are standing; finish with your arms outstretched above your head.
  • Repeat as many times as feels good to you.

Try it now: 9 minute breathwork for stress video

Trying breathwork for the first time should help relieve your stress, not create more. If you’re in need of some guidance, follow this breathwork for stress relief video:

Check out these other videos on YouTube:

4 research studies on the impact of breathwork on stress reduction

The scientific community has only recently begun to verify what has been known by ancient cultures for countless generations. These studies have confirmed the benefits of breathwork for one’s physiological health.

  1. Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers: This 2004 study from the National Library of Medicine explores the effects of breathwork such as pranayama on volunteers ages 17-19, and concludes that after three months of regular breathwork, participants experienced an improvement in autonomic function (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) 
  1. Overcoming Concerns about Breathing: The Director of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Deanne Repich guides the reader on how to approach concerns around breathing and anxiety, and discusses the scientific links between the breath and overall health. 
  1. Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence: This comprehensive review from the Journal of Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine explores the results on various physical and psychological functions of volunteers practicing pranayama for several weeks. It breaks down each different style of pranayama and the effect it had on several different body and brain functions, and concludes that the practice has positive results on cognitive function, reaction time, blood pressure and stress levels.
  1. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing: This review from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in the U.S. National Library of Medicine studies the practices of breathwork in Eastern medicine and the psycho-physiological changes in brain-body interaction brought on by slow breathing.

Ready to improve your life with breathwork? Take a few minutes for your breath, try the Othership app for free, and discover what breathwork can do for you.