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How Breathing Can Help Reduce Stress

We have all been there before: a long day of work or school or just life where things pile up and nothing seems to be going the way you want it to. Cue the increased heart rate, scattered thoughts, irritability and negative feelings – some of the all-too-familiar symptoms of stress. Medline defines stress as, “a feeling of emotional or physical tension resulting from an event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.” In short, it’s your body’s reaction to a challenge or a demand.

While some stress is normal (and even healthy) if it’s keeping you from functioning as usual in your day-to-day life it may be time to take a second look. Chronic stress is stress that lasts a long period of time and can stem from issues like trouble at work, financial problems or an unhappy relationship. Chronic stress can have long-lasting damaging effects to your health in the form of prolonged headaches, high blood pressure and in some severe cases, heart disease.

So, what’s a good way to relieve some stress? While there are a number of different ways to reduce stress, one of the easiest and most convenient methods is one we do every day without thinking: breathing. Breathing exercises can be done anywhere and any time, making them an ideal intervention or coping mechanism when you’re feeling overwhelmed – and they’re backed by science. Studies have shown that practicing breathing exercises and mindfulness can lead to better mental health and positive emotions, and alleviate stress and depression. Breathing exercises also allow you to think more clearly and reduce feelings of anxiety.

Research shows that our brain associates different emotions with different breathing patterns, and breathing exercises work because they trick your brain into thinking your emotional state is different than it actually is. When we are happy, our breathing is regular and steady. However, when we are stressed, anxious or fearful, our breathing becomes irregular, shallow and quicker. When you slow your breathing down in times of stress you can trick your brain into thinking you’re actually in a calm state and there is no threat or challenge at hand.

If you’re feeling stressed, the easiest way to begin to calm down is simply changing your inhale-to-exhale ratio. For example, try inhaling for four counts and exhaling for eight counts. Inhaling causes your heart rate to speed up but exhaling causes your heart rate to slow down – the longer your heart rate is slowed, the calmer you’ll feel. If you find that breathing exercises work really well for you, you can also practice them daily to “train” your nervous system to react to a lesser degree in stressful situations.

Experiencing stress is just a part of being human — we’ll all feel stressed at some point. But you have some control over how you respond to it. After you have figured out what works, we recommend self-care activities to really mellow yourself out. If you’re curious about other breathing patterns and exercises for stress and anxiety, this page has a number of different methods for you to try. Using these tips can help you #BeTheDifference for your long-term physical and mental wellbeing.

For more ways you can take care of your mental health if you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious, we encourage you to take a look at our other blogs:

  1. How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
  2. Stress vs. Anxiety – Knowing the Difference Is Critical to Your Health
  3. How to Manage Your Mental Health When Feeling Stressed During COVID-19

 

References:

Medline Plus. (2021, June 9). Stress and your health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm

Philippot, P., Chapelle, G. & Blairy, S. (2010, September 10). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 16(5), 605-627, DOI: 10.1080/02699930143000392

Seppälä, EM, Bradley, C, Moeller, J, Harouni, L, Nandamudi, D & Brackett, MA. (2020, July 15). Promoting Mental Health and Psychological Thriving in University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Three Well-Being Interventions. Frontiers in Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00590