Breathing Tricks to Reduce Stress
One of the best relievers of stress is something that we do all the time and take for granted: Breathing. A growing number of studies show that breathing exercises can improve our digestive system, immune system, lungs, brain, and heart, as well as help chronic health conditions.
Breathing can also stop stress in its tracks, according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. While there are a variety of stress-reducing breathing exercises, Dr. Huberman says one technique involves the simple act of sighing.
During a five-hour interview on the “Jocko Podcast,” hosted by Jocko Willing, an ex-Navy Seal officer, Dr. Huberman explained that the “psychological sigh” could take over your body’s stress response and shut down the panicky feeling of escalating stress.
To use the “psychological sigh,” Dr. Huberman says to:
- Take two short breaths through your nose.
- Take one long exhale through your mouth.
- Repeat one to three times.
This breathing exercise is simple because sighing is something we do without even realizing it. According to a study by researchers at UCLA and Stanford, people sigh every five minutes, which is about 12 sighs per hour.
“A sigh is a deep breath, but not a voluntary deep breath,” Jack Feldman, author of the sighing study, said in a news release. “It starts out as a normal breath, but before you exhale, you take a second breath on top of it.”
Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute, noted that you sigh more when you are stressed.
“It may be that neurons in the brain areas that process emotion are triggering the release of the sigh neuropeptides—but we don’t know that.”
For the psychological sigh to be effective, it’s best to take longer exhales than inhales. According to Dr. Huberman, the longer exhales, and slower breaths act like a kill switch on your stress response.
The psychological sigh and other breathing techniques that relieve stress are based on the science of breathing. For instance, when you inhale, your diaphragm and other muscles move down in a way that allows the chest to expand, which creates more room for your heart. The heart, then, expands which causes the blood to move slower through the larger space.
“Neurons in the heart are sensitive to the speed of blood flow, so they signal to the brain that blood is moving more slowly to the heart,” explains Charlotte Grysolle, who writes articles on the online publishing platform, “Medium,” about neuroscience, productivity, and mental models. “The brain sends back a signal to speed up the heart. So if you breathe in longer than you breathe out, your heart speeds up.”
The process works in reverse when you exhale. Everything within your chest contracts and causes your blood to speed up and your heart to slow down. However, your heart starts racing when you are under stress. So, if you want to calm down, “you have to breathe out longer and more forcefully than you breathe in,” Grysolle says.
Other Breathing Exercises That Help To Reduce Stress
This breathing exercise not only helps to reduce stress, it can also help to control shortness of breath (especially when you are panicking) by stopping air from getting trapped in your lungs. You can do the following deep breathing exercise standing or sitting:
- Slightly draw back your elbows to allow your chest to expand.
- Inhale deeply through your nose.
- Hold your breath for a count of five.
- Slowly release your breath by exhaling through your nose.
Five Finger Breathing
When we are worried about something, “worry thinking” takes up space in our working memory, according to Dr. Judson Brewer, director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. To free up space that worrying takes up in the brain, Brewer recommends doing the “Five Finger Breathing” exercise:
- Place the index finger of one hand on the outside of the pinky finger on your other hand. As you breathe in, trace up to the tip of your pinky, and as you breathe out, trace down the inside of your pinky.
- On your next inhale, trace up the outside of your ring finger, and on the exhale, trace down the inside of your ring finger.
- Inhale and trace up the outside of your middle finger; exhale and trace down the inside of your middle finger.
- Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand.
- Reverse the process and trace from your thumb back to your pinky.
According to Brewer, who is also an associate professor in psychiatry at the Brown University’s School of Medicine, this breathing technique reduces stress because you are watching and feeling your fingers while paying attention to your breath. This not only requires awareness of the senses of seeing and feeling but an awareness of your two fingers, your two hands and your lungs, he said.
Another popular stress reliever is the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Find somewhere comfortable to sit. If you can, close your eyes.
- Breathe in through your nose to the count of four.
- Hold your breath to the count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight.
Expand Your Visual Field
Grysolle listened to the “Jocko Podcast” with Dr. Huberman and noted 15 “physiological tools and tricks” that can improve willpower, focus, sleep and moods. Grysolle recommends using this technique when you need to make an important decision or when you feel stressed:
Pause, take a breath and broaden your visual field, which Grysolle describes as “consciously shifting into panoramic vision.”
Think about looking at a beautiful vista or horizon, or focus on what is in your peripheral vision. You might notice your breathing slows down. The muscles in your face and body relax.
According to Grysolle, widening your field of vision will calm you down because you are activating the part of your nervous system associated with relaxation and calmness.