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5 Breathing Techniques to Help Reduce Stress

Breathing is information. The more stressed you feel, the faster you breathe, and your brain will notice this and read it as a signal that things are not going well. That fast, shallow breathing which happens when you’re stressed is effectively telling your brain that you’re running from a lion. But the reverse of this rule is also true: if you breathe slowly, you’re giving your brain a signal that you’re in a place of calm. You will start to feel less stressed. Studies have even shown that the right kind of breathing can reduce our perception of pain. Both the pace at which you breathe and how deeply you breathe change your stress response. If all you do for one minute is slow your breathing down and aim for six breaths (one breath is in and out) in that minute, it will reduce the stress state and stimulate the thrive state.

A daily practice of breathing – Breathing practice is especially worth considering if you’re the kind of person who finds meditation difficult. You don’t have to stick to the same practice each time. Play around. Listen to your body. Experiment. I’m sure that, within a few days, you’ll find a technique that works for you. Aim to do at least one of these practices every day. Even one minute per day of focused, intentional breathing can make a big difference. Try one of the breathing techniques I outline below.


One minute, six breaths. Because making new habits is hard, I want to start easy. For this practice, I’d like you to set aside just one minute to consciously take six breaths. This means that each breath should take about ten seconds to complete, in and out. Use a timer or the second hand of a clock to keep track. If you’re new to this kind of practice, you may find that eight breaths in one minute is a little easier to start with. Ideally, I’d like you to do this once in the morning after you’ve got up, once after lunch and once just before you go to bed. You’ll slow your heart rate down, help activate your thrive state and replace a lot of that bad information with good. If you do this for just sixty seconds in the morning, you’ll start to become more aware of your breath for the remainder of the day.

3–4–5 Breath. I find that this exercise can be extremely effective for clients who are prone to anxiety or stress. It could hardly be simpler. Breathe in for three seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for five seconds. When your outbreath is longer than your in-breath, you reduce the activation of your stress state and encourage your body to move into a thrive state. You can do a few rounds of this breath or extend it to take five minutes. Listen to your body and see what works for you.

Box breathing. This can be done at any time, but patients report to me that it’s especially useful just before bedtime. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, then hold for another four. Box breathing helps lower stress levels, calm the nervous system and take your mind away from distracting thoughts. It’s reported that Navy Seals use this method to control their stress levels.

Nadi Shodhan. Alternate-nostril breathing can give a boost of energy as well as help you fall asleep (see p. 241). Sit comfortably, with your shoulders relaxed. Place your right thumb on to your right nostril to block it and fully exhale through your left nostril. Breathe in through your left nostril for a count of four. Place the ring finger and little finger of your right hand on to your left nostril to block it. Release your right thumb and breathe out through your right nostril for a count of four. At the end of the breath, keep your fingers where they are and breathe in through the right nostril for four. Place the thumb back over the right nostril and breathe out through the left nostril. This is one cycle. Start off by doing ten rounds. You can increase this as you become more familiar with the practice.

Kapalabhati. Otherwise known as the ‘Skull Shining Breath’, this forced diaphragmatic breath is a pretty intense exercise but great for a quick pick-me-up. As you take a full deep breath in through your nose, your abdomen will expand. As you exhale, pull your belly button in forcefully and actively, as if it’s going in towards the spine. (It can be helpful to think about throwing your breath out.) After each exhale, as your abdomen expands again, you’ll automatically start to inhale. Do ten to twenty of these breaths. Afterwards, pay attention to how you feel. It is always best to learn this one from a trained yoga instructor. Please avoid doing it on an empty stomach, if you’re pregnant, have a stent or pacemaker or a history of epilepsy or a hernia.

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