How Breathing Exercises Can Help You Cope With Stress, Anxiety, And Even Insomnia

The breath is a free and powerful tool that’s always at our disposal. Here's how breathing exercises can have a big impact on your life.

Join the Collective for FREE Wellness Guides. Exclusive Deals. Supportive Community.
img HealthyWay

Take a deep breath.

How many times has someone said this to you when you were feeling stressed? When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, prepping for a high-stakes presentation, or in the midst of a passionate argument with your SO, there is a lot to be said for simply…taking a breath.

Why is breathing so effective at calming us down or at least helping us come back to our bodies? And why are breathing exercises at the root of almost any meditation or relaxation practice?

“The widely advertised reason why we pay attention to breath during meditation is because it’s constantly changing,” explains Mark Miller, PsyD, master of public health, clinical psychologist, and mindfulness teacher at the University of Southern California. “We have a consistent target, so we can pay attention to something that’s changing and learn to tolerate that.”

The less commonly advertised reason, however, is much more profound.

“When we pay attention during meditation, we notice that we don’t have control over the breath—and in fact over anything!” explains Miller, “…what we think, what emotions we are feeling, what stories we are playing out in our minds…”

So we sit, breathe, and tolerate letting the breath do what it does. This, in turn, is excellent practice for tolerating all the other things in our lives that are out of our control.

Breathing exercises help us return to the now.

“The breath is happening in the here and now,” explains Jennifer Brilliant, a certified yoga teacher, therapist, and medical exercise specialist who has been teaching yoga for more than 30 years. “We have bummer feelings about the past and anxious feelings about the future, but of course none of those are happening right now.

It’s hard to tell our minds to stop thinking, but if you engage the breath, you can get some relief.

“Even taking a couple of breaths can ground you in the present moment,” says Brilliant.

When we get stressed, most of us have a fight or flight response, which shortens our breath and prepares us for battle. This is useful in the moment, but it starts to wear on us if we stay in this state over time. According to a resource hosted by Harvard Health Publishing, stress leads to everything from lowered immune responses to anxiety and depression to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor strongly associated with heart disease.

Instead of taking a pill, we can tap into our built-in calming device: the breath.

The Nervous System in a Nutshell

The sympathetic nervous system is for emergencies, Miller explains. The parasympathetic nervous system helps us to relax and move toward equilibrium.

“When we have an adrenaline rush from a worried thought, our breathing increases and our body is mobilizing to take action related to the fantasy,” says Miller. “We are at the whim of our breath. The sympathetic nervous system gets engaged all the time—from tiny squirts of adrenaline all the way to a panic attack.”

These worried thoughts can come from anywhere. Will I get home on time? Will I get the job? Is my partner mad at me? When these thoughts occur, the parasympathetic nervous system can help us cope.

How do we the engage the parasympathetic nervous system? Miller suggests we should become “fascinated with the symptoms of our anxiety in our distress.” In other words, using a meditation or mindfulness practice, we can take an interest in the breath that will help us experience the sensations in our bodies without running away.

“During a panic attack, you can move toward the sensations in the body, not toward the scenario or thoughts,” he says. “If you can become familiar with sensation”—shortness of breath, heart racing—“the more it happens, the less afraid you’ll be. It becomes an old friend who [you] don’t want to visit often, but you can say, ‘I know this. There it is!’ Instead of resisting you can allow it to play out.”

Sitting with the breath, as it is, is a way to practice sitting through all sorts of discomfort in our lives.

A Note on Breathing Exercises

More prescriptive breath practices like pranayama should always be attempted with a teacher first. What we are sharing here are simple exercises you can do almost any place or any time to give yourself a little relief.

Simply pay attention.

How often do you pay attention to your breath—actually pay attention? Obviously, you’re already breathing, but can you put your awareness on your breath without changing anything?

“With total newbies, I usually work on breath awareness,” Brilliant says. “Where do you feel your breath in your body? Do you feel it coming into your nostrils? If you breathe in, it feels cool. When you breathe out, it feels warmer.”

Another way of tapping into the breath and your body is to notice what’s happening in the space around you—and within you. Listen to sounds in and out of the room you’re in, Brilliant suggests. Can you hear airplanes, cars, birds, dogs barking? Is your stomach growling? Are your ears ringing? Can you feel your heartbeat? The breath can help you tune in to the present moment both inside and outside of your own physical being.

This can also be extremely useful if you’re feeling anxious.

“In the midst of a panic attack, we tend to judge the panic,” explains Carly Goldstein, PhD, assistant professor at Alpert Medical School of Brown University and research scientist at the Miriam Hospital. “If you can focus on your breath, accept that it’s faster and not what you want, you can eventually calm down. I think of breathing as a way to hijack the nervous system.”

Miller notes that trying to change the breath or creating a scenario around the panic (“My heart is beating so fast that I must be having a heart attack!”) only increases the panic.

“When we control panicked breathing by trying to slow it down, it causes more intense panicked breathing,” he explains. “If you are successful in slowing it down, you end up having chest pain. When we fight that uncomfortable breathing, our throat constricts, our shoulders go up, [and] we cause more panic.”

The answer is to leave the breath open and allow yourself time and space to experience it as it is. This is an exercise in familiarizing yourself with your breath.

Try it

Lie down on flat on your back. Put your hands on your chest and breathe a few times without changing anything. Can you feel your chest move as you breathe? Move your hands down to your ribs. Do your ribs move? Your side ribs? Your belly? Don’t force it or ask it to change. You’re just observing the breath here.

Tip

When you’re lying on the floor, your body should have sufficient space to breathe. In other words, there should be air between your upper arm and torso (in your armpit), and your legs shouldn’t be touching each other.

Scan your body with breathing.

During her internship and residency, Goldstein worked in a hospital setting, often with patients who were critically ill. As anyone who has been in the hospital knows, it can be incredibly stressful. Doctors have little time, and patients sometimes have difficulty advocating for themselves.

“When the team was coming by for rounds, I’d do breathing with the patient beforehand to clear her mind and get her thoughts in order,” Goldstein says. “Then when the medical team arrived, the patient could present her interests and advocate for herself.”

The breathing exercise Goldstein would most commonly use in this setting was a body scan with breathing. This exercise can be seen as the follow-up to just paying attention.

Here you’re asked to draw your mind to one body part at a time while you breathe. Part of its benefit is the way it can focus the mind. Instead of allowing yourself to spin out of control, your task is to place your attention on a specific part of your body—such as your toes, your heels, or your ankles—and to feel the breath move through. (Obviously, you don’t have breath in your toes! But the idea is that you can relax each inch of your body to calm down.)

Try it

Depending on how much time you have, this can be done with bigger body parts (e.g., legs, belly, chest) or on an almost infinitesimal level (first knuckle of the thumb, second knuckle, and so on).

Begin by breathing normally. Scan from the top down, sending healing, warm energy to each part of the body. Take stock of what that part of the body feels like. (Is your head tight? Tingling? Pounding? Is there no sensation at all?) Then inhale and exhale through five breath cycles for each body part.

“You can use imagery,” explains Goldstein, “a light, a feeling of fuzziness, running through or on top of [your] body, regulating the breath to be even and slow. Picture warmth, comfort, relaxation.”

TIP

With each exhale, relax a little more. If you ever feel your breath getting forced, just go back to breathing totally normally.

To calm down (or even lose weight) elongate your exhale.

Breathing exercises can serve as a pause button, slowing down the chaos of our everyday lives. In her clinical practice, Goldstein works with weight-loss patients and finds that breathing techniques can help when someone is overwhelmed by a craving. These exercises short-circuit the “need-to-have-it, limited-resource” mentality, she explains.

When we can breathe deeply again (instead of, say, grabbing the bag of chips), we can reconnect to our values and what’s most important to us (in Goldstein’s patients’ cases, to lose weight). And then it will be easier to make good decisions.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to weight loss! Deep breathing slows the chaos for all of us in moments of panic, and extending the exhale in particular is calming because “the heart rate is naturally slower on the exhalation,” Brilliant explains.

Try It

This is good to practice if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep or if you’re stuck in traffic and need to calm down.

Begin by breathing in for three seconds and out for three seconds. Then you can start extending the exhalation slowly: three in, four out, without strain. Eventually you can work up to breathing in for five seconds and out for 10.

Tip

This should not be forced. If you feel yourself getting anxious or agitated, go back to regular breathing.

Try a three-part breath.

The three parts of this breathing exercise are low belly, ribs, and chest. Starting in the low belly, the breath fills the body one section at a time. In other words, you’re taking in more air than in some of the preceding exercises. This is an excellent technique to help you find some calm.

Try It

Sit in a chair or lie on the floor and place your hands on your low belly. Fill the low belly with air. Without exhaling, move your palms to your middle ribs and fill that area with air. Bring your hands to your upper chest and take a last sip of air. Exhale all the air out. If you’re doing this in bed, imagine you’re falling into the mattress.

Tip

If it’s too much to do the full three parts right away, you can inhale into the low belly and exhale, middle belly and exhale, etcetera, until you build up the stamina to draw in more air.

Get app support.

A teacher is always the best guide to breathing exercises, but there are plenty of apps that can help you along the way. Here are some to try:

  • Headspace offers both basic meditation techniques and more advanced specific guided meditations (for self-esteem, productivity, depression, and more).
  • Calm is specifically geared to help you…calm down.
  • Buddhify offers meditation on the go.
  • Pacifica offers guided meditation and relaxation techniques. Pacifica can also connect you to a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR