Deep Breathing for Stress and Anxiety Relief

Proneness to anxiety and stress is one of the hallmarks of the people living in the modern world. Our hectic, success-oriented way of life depletes the inner resources of the soul, making us break down and succumb to depression. Breathing exercise may help you relieve stress and reduce anxiety, and here is how it is done.

Image Credit: shutterstock.com / Antonio Guillem

Of all non-pharmaceutical approaches to stress management, only regular exercising and breathing techniques have proved to be effective and are now backed by scientific evidence.

Few people give thought to how they breathe. Our bodies were created to function “automatically”, so we do not have to force us to inhale and exhale: the brain does it for us. Still, breathing can be voluntary: we can adjust the depth and rate of breathing, the parameters that are normally controlled by means of homeostatic mechanisms, if we want to. This ability can be used to cope with anxiety and stress, as the way you breathe can affect your mood.

Are you doing it right?

The two types of breathing mentioned above are diaphragmatic and thoracic. Although it may sound like rocket science, the difference is in the patterns of breathing: the former is abdominal breathing, and the latter is chest breathing.

Chest breathing is shallow, it is used when some kind of danger is detected, or when you are stressed due to some other reason. Conversely, abdominal breathing is carried out by means of contracting the diaphragm. It is a natural form of breathing, which is normally observed when you are relaxed, for example, when sleeping.

If you avoid deep breathing, if only unconsciously, your body and mind can take a hit: as the thoracic breathing pattern does not supply you with enough oxygen, stress is aggravated. If you are prone to panic attacks, it can be yet another contributing factor.

Diaphragmatic breathing: how to

To check whether your breathing pattern is diaphragmatic, place your hand on your abdomen and see if the abdomen expands. If it is your chest and shoulders that move much more than the abdomen does, then your breathing is thoracic.

Mind your breathing. Like this. Image Credit: deepbreathingexercises.com

Here is the exercise which can help you relieve stress.

  • You can perform this exercise regardless of whether you are standing, lying or sitting. However, it might be better to try it for the first time when lying on the floor. Use a yoga mat to make it more comfortable.
  • Loosen your clothes so that they do not restrict breathing.
  • If lying, you can bend your knees – this position may be more comfortable and relaxing.
  • Start breathing deeply. Do not force it, let the air get in your lungs freely and effortlessly.
  • Breathe in though the nose. Exhale though the mouth. Try counting to 5 to slow down breathing. It may be difficult to do it without practice, so if it feels uncomfortable, exhale and inhale at a slow rate you find appropriate.
  • Breathe like this for 3-5 minutes every day. You can do it several times a day.

It was reported that deep breathing can improve cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone which is released in the bloodstream as a result of stress, and diaphragmatic breathing may improve it. Among other effects are better attention and reduced negative affect.

Deep breathing can affect ventilation efficiency, heart rate variability, haemodynamics, and other systems and mechanisms. As to heart rate variability, it has recently been discovered that resonance frequency breathing, a technique which implies slow breathing, can help improve blood pressure and HRV.

There are apps which you can use to practice diaphragmatic breathing, like this one, but it is not necessary: whether you are at work or studying, you can dedicate a couple of minutes a day to relaxation through this natural breathing pattern by focusing on the process.

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