The Simple Stress Buster: Breathing

Kelly K. James

There’s a simple stress buster that everyone has access to, something you can do whether you’re at work, at home, or on the road. You can do it first thing in the morning, at any time of day, and even in the middle of the night. It’s one of the fastest, most effective ways to reduce stress, reset your emotions, and find calm even in the midst of the most demanding times. 

What is it? Breathing. Or, more accurately, deep breathing. 

Breathing is as natural as, well, breathing. Yet most of us pay no attention to our breath unless something has disrupted it, like when you’re congested with a cold or struggling through a tough workout. But a certain kind of breathing—deep, or diaphragmatic, breathing—does more than oxygenate your body. 

Deep breathing produces a cascade of physical changes that trigger your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” system. When you turn on this system, your heart rate decreases, your levels of stress hormones drop, your blood pressure drops, and your muscles relax. 

The parasympathetic nervous system works in opposition to our sympathetic nervous system, which fires when your brain detects a threat. When your sympathetic nervous system is triggered, your heart rate and breathing increase, and your body sends blood to your extremities to prepare you for “fight or flight.” The trouble is that everyday stressors—like being stuck in traffic, feeling overwhelmed by work, or worrying about finances—can leave your sympathetic nervous system “on alert” all the time. And those increases in blood pressure, stress hormones, and heart rate are associated with a higher risk of developing stress-related diseases. 

The solution? Turn on your parasympathetic nervous system more often with deep breathing. You’ll lower your stress levels and improve your overall emotional and physical health as well. 

Everyday Breathing Versus
Deep Breathing 

You probably spend most of your day breathing from your chest, taking short, shallow breaths. To diaphragmatically breathe, you want to breathe “from your belly.” In other words, you want your belly to expand as you inhale and contract slightly as you exhale. This kind of breathing helps deepen your inhalations and exhalations, which slows down your breathing and maximizes the amount of oxygen you take in. 

 Studies have shown that this type of breathing reduces anxiety, depression, and stress. It is also used as part of treatment plans for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related disorders. 

Best of all, doing it is simple. Here’s how:  

• Sit, stand, or lie in a comfortable position with one hand on your belly. Inhale slowly through your nose, feeling your belly expand. 

• Hold for a second or two, then exhale completely. (You can count to four as you inhale and exhale if you like.) 

• Slowly take your next breath, repeating the process, for several minutes. 

• You can do this several times a day, whenever you feel the need for a quick stress buster.  

So take your time and take a deep breath when you feel overwhelmed or anxious or out of sorts. This seemingly minor strategy will both help you feel better in the short run and improve your chances of staying healthy in the long run. 

Kelly K. James is a health writer based in Downers Grove, Illinois.

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