We know that stress has a significant impact on our overall health. Taking steps to alleviate stress in our life isn’t just about feeling more relaxed - it can improve work performance, sleep, relationships and most notably, can improve our physical health.
Although it’s commonly advised to “take a deep breath” when we’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be hard to imagine a significant connection between the simple action of breathing and stress. However, our respiratory system is one of the most complex systems of the human body, and harnessing its power is an enormously effective way to take control of our health.
In this article, we’ll explain the link between breathwork and stress relief, and provide easy and impactful ways in which you can begin to implement breathwork techniques to relieve stress and improve your physical and mental health. If you would also like to learn about breathing techniques to help you cope with anxiety, check out our guide to breathwork for anxiety.
There is a profound link between improper breathing and stress that we will outline below; conversely, using breathwork for stress relief can be the key to alleviating its symptoms.
We’ve all felt stressed from time to time, whether it’s brought on by work obligations, relationship issues or just watching the news. Though we may not always notice, it takes a lasting toll on both our emotional health, and in a very tangible sense, our physical health as well.
Stress is the emotional or mental toll taken by adverse or overly-demanding circumstances. It differs from anxiety in that stress is, by definition, caused by an outside source such as work obligations or interpersonal conflict.
Stress triggers our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and specifically the “fight-or-flight” response, which results in a series of physiological responses. In addition to shortness of breath, stress can cause elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, impeded digestive function and raised blood pressure. These symptoms are not only unpleasant in the moment, but can take a significant toll on one’s overall health over time.
Can stress cause shortness of breath? Absolutely! In fact, it is usually the first and most noticeable symptom of stress, and is a result of the fight or flight response. Your body thinks you’re in danger, so it raises your heart rate and causes breathing to become rapid and shallow in preparation for you to either flee or fight off an enemy.
This physical response is usually offset by the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or the “rest-and-digest” response, which offsets the “fight-or-flight” responses once the body gets the signal that the danger is gone. Symptoms of chronic stress arise when life is consistently stressful, and the “rest-and-digest” therefore never gets a chance to kick in. This is when we can use breathwork to take our body’s responses into our own hands.
Doctors, yogis, and therapists alike have used breathwork for ptsd, stress, grief and physiological health for centuries, and its impact on the Autonomic Nervous System has more recently been confirmed by modern medical science.
The Autonomic Nervous System controls the body’s functions that operate without conscious effort, such as blood vessel dilation, heart rate, and digestion; breathing is a unique function of the ANS in that while it is involuntary (i.e. we continue breathing without thinking about it), we do have the ability to take control of it. By controlling our breathing, we can actually send a signal back to the other ANS functions that the danger is gone, which will trigger the parasympathetic, or “rest-and-digest” response and alleviate the physical symptoms of stress.
Many cultures have used breathwork as medicine, and the techniques range from lengthy and complex, to practices as simple as taking a moment to focus on your breath. Here are some easy deep breathing exercises for stress relief.
When we’re stressed, anxious or panicky, our breath tends to become more shallow; this is our body preparing to sprint away from danger, or fight it off. Our breathing motion becomes isolated to the upper half of our body, and the lungs have trouble finding enough room to expand to their full extent. Deep belly breathing technique involves releasing tension in our ribs and abdomen to make room in the body for the lungs to fully expand; this creates a feeling as if we are breathing air into our lower body. To practice deep belly breathing:
Yogic breathwork, or pranayama, is many people’s entry point into the practice of breathwork. Chances are, if you’ve been to a yoga class, you’ve been told to focus on the breath or even taught how to practice one or more types of pranayama. There are countless reasons that these methods have been practiced for centuries; for starters, they’re effective and easy to practice on your own.
Alternate Nostril Breathing is a very easy technique to practice; it is simply to plug one nostril gently while slowly inhaling and exhaling. It brings focus into the body and intention to the action of breathing, while also unblocking the sinuses.
To practice nostril breathing:
Ujjayi, or Victorious breath provides multiple benefits; it both slows your breathing, and assists in focusing on the breath through its intentional tensing of the throat muscles, reducing the risk of distraction and reaching a meditative state.
To try Victorious breathing: Inhaling and exhaling through your nose, constrict the muscles you would use to clear your throat just slightly, enough that the breath is slowed and makes a whooshing sound on the exhale.
Simsahana, or Lion’s Breath, is a unique and rather fun way to reduce stress. One of its key benefits is helping to release tension in the face and jaw; this can have a calming effect, with the added benefit of alleviating stress headaches. Plus, to be frank, it looks a bit silly, which reminds us that even meditative practices don’t always have to be so serious.
To practice Lion’s Breath:
Morning Breathing is a breathing technique that yoga connaisseurs will recognize as similar to Sun Salutation. Both practices have names that refer to morning, and for good reason; this technique combines deep breathing and stretching in a way that is both an intuitive and beneficial way to start your day. One of the more common barriers to deep breathing is muscle tension, particularly in the back and torso. This method will help release that tension, improve circulation and get the oxygen flowing.
To practice Morning Breathing:
Get started with the help of these easy-to-follow video tutorials.
In this video from Inward Breathwork, Harry guides you through a calming six-minute session using the 4-7-8 method of breathwork, followed by a short meditation. Accompanied by soothing sounds of water and singing bowls, this video makes a perfect moment of escape for days when everything starts to feel a bit overwhelming.
This video from the mindfulness app MyLife is a very simple introduction to just bringing the focus to the breath. This quick and easy 3-minute video is a great starting point for exploring breathwork that you can fit into any time of your day.
In this Ted Talk, Stacey Schuerman discusses the impact of stress on one’s health and how breathwork can be crucial in treating the physiological symptoms of stress, before leading the audience (and viewer) on a five-minute breathing meditation.
The scientific community has only recently begun to verify what has been known by ancient cultures for countless generations. These studies have confirmed the benefits of breathwork for one’s physiological health.
Breathwork remains a simple, natural and safe way to look after your body, mind and well-being. The resources offered by Inward Breathwork are designed to empower you to harness all the benefits of breathwork, whether you’ve been practicing for years or are just starting out.
Take a few minutes to reconnect with your breath by starting our free trial and experience what breathwork can do for you.