Breathing for stress management

When we are struggling to cope in a world that seems impossibly changed, it can be helpful to look at what we can take control of, rather than fixating on things that we can’t.

One thing we can take control of is how we are in our bodies. Our posture, how we move, our breathing all have a significant influence on what we think, how we feel and what we achieve. By making a shift in any of these areas we can make a shift in our experience of the world.


The power of breathwork

An easy way to create a shift is through our breathing. Particular breath patterns are associated with different emotions such as anger, sadness and joy, and also influence how calm or agitated we feel.

Breathing basics

Our bodies were designed to breathe with a diaphragmatic (belly) breath. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle at the bottom of our ribcage, dome-shaped like an umbrella. When we breathe in the diaphragm flattens, pulling the lungs down and allowing air into our bodies. When we breathe out, the diaphragm goes back to being dome shaped, pushing the lungs up and air out of our bodies. As the diaphragm flattens, it goes down into our belly, leaving less room for our internal organs. This is why our belly rises as we breathe in and falls as we breathe out.

In moments of anxiety everything comes up. We come up into our heads (all those thoughts buzzing around making it hard for us to concentrate) and our breathing comes up more into our chest. This means we’re actually working harder to breathe than we need to, as we start to use more of our shoulders, ribs and chest muscles, and less of our diaphragm.

The way we breathe is the way we live our life

The benefit of breathing more in our chest is that it connects us to our feelings, helping us empathise and connect with others.

The benefit of breathing more in our bellies is that it connects us to our sense of control and willpower, helping us feel more grounded, clearer and more objective when making decisions.

Ideally we want to access all these benefits, creating balance and calm in our lives. To help with this, we want our breath to start in our bellies using the diaphragm, and then for the breath to move up into our chest so that we have a gentle open breath using our whole breathing system.

Noticing your own breath pattern

A simple way to explore your own breath pattern is to sit or lie comfortably, closing your eyes and placing one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Breathe normally and notice which part of your torso is rising and falling as you do so.

If you are breathing primarily in your chest, you can start to bring your breathing down by placing your hands on your belly with the very tips of your fingers just touching. As you breathe in, imagine you are pushing the energy gently down into your belly. If your fingertips start to move apart, even slightly, then it means you are getting down into your belly and using the diaphragm more effectively. With practice, you can deepen your breath and create that gentle open breath utilising both your belly and your chest.


Breathing for self-care

Try experimenting with these different breathing patterns. They are designed to help you take care of yourself in different ways – whether you want to feel calmer and less stressed; get to sleep more easily; or take the time to explore and release stuck emotions.


Feel calmer and less stressed

Try slow breathing at a rate of five breaths per minute (breathing in for a count of six and out for a count of six). By consciously controlling our breathing in this way, we can slow our heart rate, digestion and gain a general feeling of calm.


Get to sleep more easily

First do a simple body scan. Starting at the top of your head, slowly move your attention down through your body, simply noticing how you are in that moment. If you find areas of tension, for example your shoulders feel tight, try tensing them up even more and then slowly releasing them. You should get a deeper relaxation than if you just tried to relax them from where you started.

Then practice a Counting Breath, using a longer exhale than inhale. Take a normal breath in, counting how long the breath is, then make the out-breath twice as long as the in-breath. So, if you breathed in for a count of two, breathe out for a count of four; if you breathed in for a count of three, breathe out for a count of six. This breath helps to calm the mind as the counting gives the brain something to do, rather than focusing on unhelpful thoughts.


Explore and release stuck emotions

If you feel calm and ready to explore deeper feelings, try open-mouth breathing. When we feel stressed we often hold our breath, which can be about not wanting to feel. However, those feelings don’t simply go away, instead they get stuck in our bodies, building up over time. This can cause us to feel more stress and anxiety, sometimes without even knowing why, as these feelings start to seep out into our everyday lives.

Breathing gently through your mouth for 5-10 minutes, keeping the breath connected (imagine a ‘circular’ breath with no pauses between the inhale and exhale, or the exhale and inhale) can allow those emotions to come to the surface.

Different feelings may come up, for example anger (try kicking with your legs and punching the air with your hands to express this), tears (having a few tissues handy can be helpful), or even laughter.

Take some time to rest after you have tried breathing in this way, so that you can integrate these feelings. Often you will feel lighter after having done this exercise.

Allison Lindsay, Business Psychologist, Coach and Breathworker, School for Wellbeing