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How to use breathing exercises to deal with stress

01 June 2022

With all of the chaos that surrounds us, life can be stressful. Countless methods are promoted as cures for stress and anxiety, ranging from the pharmaceutical to the natural.

Yet one method that is commonly overlooked, but has been around for thousands of years, is breathing. Inhalation and exhalation might not sound like a dramatic remedy that some might require, but it is one of our most natural and effective forms of calming the body.

Why we are breathing badly

Breathe in and breathe out, then repeat. Seems simple enough, but the overwhelming majority of people are quite simply not getting enough out of their breathing.

Shallow breathing, where the breathing never seems to get past the upper chest region and is characterised by short shallow breaths, has become the norm for many but is neither natural nor good for us.

This form of breathing has been linked with increased blood pressure and heart rate which in turn often leads to higher levels of stress and anxiety. Deep breaths on the other hand have the exact opposite effect, with long deep inhalations bringing plenty of oxygen into the body and extended exhalations pushing out the carbon dioxide.

Deeper breathing has been shown to calm the body quickly and efficiently and doesn’t require any other external factors.       

What are breathing exercises?  

Breathing exercises come in all shapes and forms, but essentially all do the same thing, to slightly manipulate the body for various reasons.

Some breathing exercises are designed to give you energy and are popular practices for the morning, while others are designed to calm and de-stress the body and can be used either throughout the day or at night to help us sleep.

Three breathing exercises you can try

There are countless breathing exercises out there, some of which shouldn’t be tried until you get a handle on some of the basics. Here are three simple breathing exercises that everybody can do.  

5 - 5 - 5

Perhaps the simplest and yet most effective breathing technique is the simple 5 - 5 - 5 method. This can be done sitting or laying down but works best in a quiet environment with as few distractions as possible.  

Begin by breathing in deeply for 5 seconds before exhaling for 5. Once the air is completely out of the body, hold your breath for a further 5 seconds then repeat the process. After just a few rounds of this technique, you should feel your heart rate begin to slow and hopefully stress levels begin to dissipate.

As with other breathing methods, it’s important to try and clear your mind when you’re doing it. There’s no point in trying to calm the body while the mind is frantically going over a stress point.

The 4-7-8 method

Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, the 4-7-8 method is another simple breathing technique that can be used to trigger the body’s natural deep state of relaxation and is based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama. This is a great technique to be used for stress but is also widely popular to deal with sleep issues.  

Again, it can be done either sitting or lying down in as quiet an environment as possible. Begin by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth, and exhale all of the air out of your body through your mouth with a whooshing sound.

Then inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, before holding for 7, and exhaling for 8 seconds through your mouth with the same whooshing sound. Repeat this process 4 more times, or as long as you need, and you should quickly feel a calming sensation descending on the body.

The Wim Hof Method

The Wim Hoff method is a little different and is perhaps considered a little more advanced, but can be easily practised by anybody. You may already have heard of Wim Hoff, the self-styled Ice Man who holds records for time spent submerged in ice among various other whacky achievements that he puts down to his breathing technique and cold water therapy.

His methods might seem extreme, but he is quickly gathering a large following. The breathing technique itself is based on an ancient method known as Tummo that was developed by monks in the Himalayas.

The Wim Hoff method can be done either sitting or lying and involves taking forty fast and deep inhalations before pushing all of the air out on the final exhalation and holding the breath. Don’t be surprised when you can hold your breath for much longer than you think as the body is quite literally humming with oxygen.

When you begin to feel yourself running out of air, take a deep inhalation before holding for 5-10 seconds while pushing in your stomach muscles. Then exhale and repeat the entire process three more times.

The Wim Hoff method is more about deep active breathing that energises the body and often works best when done first thing in the morning then followed by a cold shower - if you dare.   

Conclusion

In our modern world, it can be all too easy to assume that we need external sources to help us relax. We need a small pill or alcoholic drink to help us take the edge off, a scroll through Instagram or Facebook to unwind or that fast food and chocolate to make us feel a little better.

Breathing can’t fix all of our modern woes, but it is certainly one of the most underused methods for dealing with stress and anxiety. This is the free, always available, and perfectly natural stress reliever that we should all be putting to use at some point.