3 Simple Breathwork Exercises to Help You Keep Calm and Manage Stress

In and out.

By Lauren Zielinski, MSN, CNM
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Are your shoulders up to your ears lately? You are so not alone. It seems like year after year—particularly in the wake of a global pandemic—stress remains at an all-time high for many of us. With busy schedules, packed work weeks, and the constant inundation of notifications, our always-on-world is filled with stressors. While stress-relief products and regular exercise can do wonders, there’s an even simpler approach that’s always at our fingertips: breathing exercises for stress that help calm our nerves and achieve a greater sense of inner peace.

An anxiety-inducing news cycle and the widespread commonality of chronic stress (among countless other factors beyond our control) leave us susceptible to illness by decreasing our immune system response. Yikes! Thankfully, breathing exercises for stress are one of the simplest—and most effective—ways to counteract this new normal.

Ahead, discover three simple, but game-changing breathing exercises for stress that you can do just about anywhere.

Featured image from our interview with Nitsa Citrine by Claire Huntsberger.

Lauren Zielinski
Lauren Zielinski, MSN, CNM

Lauren Zielinski is a certified nurse-midwife with over 11 years of experience in women’s health and birth. She studied medicine at The University of Colorado-Denver with a focus on community health and birth center work.

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Image by Jenn Rose Smith

What is breathwork?

Breathwork is the larger term for a variety of methods that focus on harnessing the rhythm, pattern, control, and power of your breathing to bring positive effects into your mind and body. While the benefits span the emotional, mental, and physical, a central reason many of us are coming to the practice today is breathwork’s ability to help us reduce stress.

Ashley Neese, a certified breathwork teacher, previously shared with us a breakdown of how breathwork positively impacts stress levels. Essentially, stressful situations activate our sympathetic nervous system, kicking our ‘fight or flight’ hormones into gear. By practicing breathing exercises for stress when this occurs, we can “create balance, peace, and space in the body to offset the energy deficiency.”

Breathwork is an ancient healing tool with roots in pranayama, or the healing breathwork exercises of yogic teaching. One of the beautiful things about breathwork is that we carry this tool with us wherever we go, and it’s available to us as an almost instant release. 

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Image by Teal Thomsen

3 Breathing Exercises for Stress

The scientific study of neuroplasticity has shown us that regularly practicing breathing exercises for stress can rewire our brain, helping us experience a more consistent state of calm.

I’ll use a metaphor. Imagine your brain as a forest. You’ll walk along two paths in this forest: stress and calm. The more you walk on a certain path, the more developed it becomes. Each time you walk on it, it becomes a little easier as the path becomes more ingrained.

This is how your brain and neural pathways work with emotions that impact your nervous systems. The more you “walk that path” or practice either the act of stress or the act of calm, the easier it is to do in the future. Your brain is strikingly malleable and capable of adapting.

Understanding this, you can trust that you can combat any negative pathway in your brain by leaning into a state of calm. The more you practice breathing exercises for stress, the more your body and mind understand that as a baseline.

Ready to destress? I’m sharing my three favorite breathing exercises for stress and breaking them down step by step. I promise, even trying just one exercise will be time well spent.

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Image by Riley Blanks Reed

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Setup: A yoga mat with a pillow or blanket rolled under your head and neck and a blanket over your body to promote calmness.

  1. Begin by lying on your back or taking a comfortable seat in a quiet, calm environment. 
  2. Place one hand over your belly and one over your heart. Begin taking deep long breaths, expanding your belly so you can feel your hand moving up and down. A comfortable, slow pace is important. Inhale for six seconds and exhale for six seconds.
  3. Once you get into this slow breath pattern, continue the pace and begin to focus on your body’s sensations of tension versus relaxation.
  4. As you inhale, pretend your breath is going right into your face, head, and neck, expanding this part of your body. On each exhale, let the muscles in this area relax. On your next inhale, move to your next muscle group, perhaps the shoulders and back. Feel your body relax and sink into the earth with each exhale.  
  5. Continue through each muscle group, working through your body head to toe.

Summary: Don’t worry about getting the muscle groups precisely correct. Simply work your way from one end of the body to the next. If this feels great, do it again or move from your feet back up to your face. It can be helpful to picture white, clean light entering your body as you inhale and any stress and tension leaving your body as black smoke, puffing away with each exhale. 

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Image by Michelle Nash

2. Slow Your Roll

Setup: Find a comfortable seat or place to lie down. The beautiful thing about this breathing exercise for stress is that it can be done anywhere.

  1. Once you’re comfortable, begin by taking long, slow breaths. At the top of your breath (or when you’re done inhaling), see if you sip a little more air and then slowly, calmly release your exhalation.
  2. Your exhalation should be roughly twice the length of your inhalation. Don’t stress and simply focus on taking a long, slow breath that feels good.

Summary: Practice this exercise for as long as you’d like. Ideally, aim for 10 minutes. From there, slowly increase your practice time as feels best.

By taking slow, deep breaths, our bodies receive a signal that we are safe. In essence, it’s the opposite of the fight or flight response. On a cellular level, your body trusts that it’s protected and doesn’t need to worry about fighting off predators. To send your body this calm signal, all you have to do is take long slow breaths, with even longer exhalations. 

Camille Styles breathing exercises for stress.
Image by Michelle Nash

3. 4-7-8 Breathing

Setup: Find a calm and quiet environment to sit or lie down. You can keep your hands on your lap, by your sides, or consider placing one hand on your belly and one on your heart.

  1. Inhale deeply for four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  3. Release your exhalation over eight seconds. Repeat!

Summary: I love this style of breathing exercises for stress, especially for beginners, but anyone may find it supportive. Focusing on the length of your inhales, holds, and exhales can help you get out of your head and stay present.

If this is difficult at first, practice 3-4 sets at a time or whatever you’re comfortable with. You may also consider shortening the counts to 3-5-6 and doing five or ten sets at a time, working your way up.

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Image by Michelle Nash

Tips to Make Breathwork a Habit

There’s research that shows linking a desired new habit with another routine you do every day increases your chance of developing the new habit. With breathing exercises for stress, you can add it to something you already do in the morning—like making tea or coffee. Every time you put a kettle on, try practicing a few minutes of breathwork as you wait for it to boil. That way, this new habit has a much higher chance of becoming a daily ritual.

The Takeaway

Here’s the tough news: stress isn’t going away. It’s a fact of our everyday lives, but we can learn to manage it in healthier ways. By honing in on healthy habits, continually reworking stress reduction and self-care, and being gentle with ourselves, we can promote healing in our lives and the lives of others. Remind yourself daily: don’t forget to breathe!