3 Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress

Breath Rock


Practice these 3 breathing techniques as potent tools for stress reduction.


Stress comes as the fight or flight response. It can be helpful if faced with a serious or life or death situation, but most of the time we feel stress, we are dealing with kids, work, commuting and so on. (Note: even if you are in a life or death situation, conscious breathing can help as you will see below).

Stress brings with it cortisol. I won’t delve too deep into the biological mechanisms of stress here, but we all know by now that there are serious health consequences of long term or chronic stress:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Cognitive impairment

Too often people seek relief by overeating, eating poorly, or using drugs and alcohol, which can lead to a vicious cycle of stress. Even on any given day, our well being can be significantly impacted by runaway stress.

How is breathing helpful?

Because most of our biological stress response is beyond our conscious control, we have to use the few tools we have to reverse the response. By breathing deeply and slowly, it signals the body that the threat is gone.

Using the breathing techniques below can trigger a calming response in the body, reducing the feeling of anxiety, lowering the heartrate and blood pressure.


Take just a moment to calm yourself. When stress and anxiety start to spin out of control, taking a moment to consciously stop to breathe is a signal to the nervous system. For a few seconds, just try to calm your mind and transition into the technique that works best for you.

It is also important to use diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing. Take deep breaths and your stomach should expand (okay, not technically the stomach, but your abdomen).

Often when we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and in the chest. In my case, I even unknowingly hold my breath for periods of time.

Technique #1: Simply Breathe Deep

Often we do not need to employ any specific techniques. Just slowly and deeply breathing will still bring about a state of calm.

Take long, slow breaths in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Continue this for as long as needed. Even a minute or two is enough, and you can do this throughout the day as needed.

It helps to intentionally relax the muscles. People carry tension in different ways, such as clenching their teeth or stomach. Maybe it’s in the shoulders. Just be aware and let the tension in the muscles relax.

I use this technique daily just to gain focus and control and to keep my always active mind in check. It may be in the shower, when my 4 year old is having a fit, when I’m driving, and definately at work!

Technique #2: Box Breathing (or 4×4 method)

This method is similar to the above method, but is more specific.

Breathe in and out slowly, but count to 4 on the inhale, hold for a count of 4, exhale through the mouth for a count of 4, then hold for a count of 4 before inhaling again.

This method is so effective, it is promoted by the military and has even been referred to as the combat breathing technique. It focuses the mind, lowers the heart rate and can increase focus.

Technique #3: The 4-7-8 Technique

This is the most structured of methods. Because of the specificity of the technique, it is probably best when you have time to sit down and concentrate on practicing it.

  • First, hold the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth on the ridgeline
  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7
  • Exhale through your mouth, around your tongue, making a whoosh sound for a count of 8

Do this for three or four rounds for maximum effect.

Don’t write this method off too quick! For what it is worth, I’ve known people to swear by this method more than any other single method.

It is especially effective when combined with a state of mindfulness or meditative practice.

To sum it up

The best time to address stress and anxiety is before they get out of control, and these will provide you potent tools to combat both.

There are a ton of methods to address stress (and anxiety), but I firmly believe learning effective deep breathing is the first step.

Find what works for you. Some methods will work better in different situations. When I’m driving, I may just focus on slow, deep breaths to control tension. If I’m laying in bed, I may be more focused on progressive relaxation.

These are only a few simple techniques, but there are many out there. They can also be combined with a mindfulness practice or meditation for an even deeper sense of calm. As you practice these, they will become second nature and become more effective. You may also find that you worry less.

In addition, they provide an immediate benefit and can be used right away.

What other breathing techniques have helped you to reduce stress?


Photo by Shawn Rossi


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