This Slow-Breathing Exercise Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Published on April 13, 2022 by Marlynn Wei M.D., J.D.

 

Slow-breathing exercises are game-changing tools to help reduce stress and anxiety. A recent research study has found that even a single session of five minutes of deep and slow breathing lowers stress and anxiety. The breathing exercise in the study was a simple guided exercise: breathing in for four seconds and out for four seconds and gradually making the exhalation longer until the ratio was four seconds in and six seconds out.

This research adds to growing research studies that show how breathing exercises can reduce anxiety and improve one’s ability to deal with stressful situations.

Breathing exercises can go by many names: mindful breathing, breath meditation, breath awareness, slow or deep breathing, paced breathing, breath control, rhythmic breathing, belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing. Breath exercises in yoga are known as pranayama, which encompasses several different types of breathing exercises that have varying purposes. In general, slow and deep breathing, such as alternate nostril breathing, has a calming effect whereas rapid, short breathing exercises tend to be more stimulating and wakeful.

 

Breath exercises help both in the moment when one is facing stressful situations and also, perhaps even more importantly, as a preventative tool. When one practices breath exercises regularly, even when one is not feeling stressed, this develops the ability to deal with stress better in the future. Think of breath exercises and practicing mindfulness like working out a muscle. The habit of practicing breath awareness daily builds one's capacity to handle stress. Practice builds one's reservoir. Over time, slow breathing will provide a clear path and immediate access to the physical “relaxation response” for the body and mind.

 

This type of breathing exercise can be done anytime, anywhere. Whether you’re waiting in line or preparing for a presentation and feeling nervous, try this simple rhythmic breath exercise for as little as one minute a day to manage stress. There are many audio guided breath meditations available online (in many languages), and we also provide audio guided meditations.

 

Beginner’s Slow Breath Awareness
  1. Find a comfortable seated position. You may also do this exercise standing, for example, if you’re waiting in line. If you are laying down, you may place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen.

  2. Gently lower your eyes to the floor in front of you or close your eyes. 

  3. Begin to notice how your breath feels today.

  4. Take a deep breath in through your nose for four counts and exhale through your nose for four counts.

  5. Repeat this breath cycle: Four counts in and four counts out. Continue to do this for one minute.

  6. Change your breath cycle to: four counts in and five counts out. Repeat this for the second minute.

  7. Change your breath cycle to: four counts in and six counts out. Continue this pace if it is comfortable for the rest of your exercise. Breathing exercises should not feel painful.

  8. When you’re ready, return to your normal breathing without trying to control it.

 
Variation on Slow Breath Awareness
  1. Find a comfortable seated position. You may also do this exercise standing, for example, if you’re waiting in line. If you are laying down, you may place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen.

  2. Gently lower your eyes to the floor in front of you or close your eyes. 

  3. Begin to notice how your breath feels today.

  4. Take a deep breath in through your nose for four counts and exhale through your nose for four counts.

  5. Repeat this breath cycle: Four counts in and four counts out. Continue to do this for one minute.

  6. Now, try four counts in and five counts out. Repeat this for the second minute.

  7. Now, try four counts in and six counts out. Repeat this for the third minute.

  8. Now, try four counts in, hold for two counts, and six counts out.

  9. Continue this pace if it is comfortable for the rest of your exercise.

  10. When you’re ready, return to your normal breathing without trying to control it

For those who may feel restless or distracted when seated, you have some options:

  • Try a seated breathing exercise but only for one minute a day for the first week. Continue for two weeks and, when you’re ready, gradually add one minute a week until you reach five minutes a day. Remember: Even if you do this for one minute a day, it can be very helpful to reduce stress and anxiety over time.

  • Try mindful walking paired with slow breathing. If sitting is not comfortable for you or you find yourself feeling restless, use your steps to match each count of your breath. For example, breathe in for four steps, and breathe out for four steps. Match your breathing to the pace of your walking so that it has a calming effect and focus on your breath in and out with each step.

Practicing regularly throughout the week makes this tool more effective when you most need it. When you carve out the time, by putting it on your calendar for the same time each day, you will be more likely to integrate it into your daily schedule. Tailor what time of day you practice these exercises to your individual schedule, taking into consideration when you feel like you most need it. If you're someone that wakes up with a lot of anxiety, try starting your day with breath exercises. Or if you are someone that has difficulty falling asleep, try this exercise as part of your nighttime sleep routine.

References

Marlynn Wei, M.D., PLLC. Copyright © 2022.