Guided breathing exercise

Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress

Key takeaways:

  • Breathwork is when we intentionally control how to breathe to feel more relaxed

  • We can do breathing exercises anywhere when we need them or practice them every day

  • Try 18 meditations for stress

What exactly are breathing exercises?

Breathing exercises, or breathwork, is when we intentionally control how to breathe to experience a sense of relaxation and calm in the mind and body. Anyone who’s taken a yoga class has done breathwork, inhaling and exhaling steadily with each new pose. Or, we may have been prompted to take a few deep breaths during a guided meditation or a Headspace sleepcast. Since breathing techniques aren’t only useful during wellness activities, we can practice them whenever we need them so that we can respond to stress in a more skillful way.

When we get anxious, we likely notice that our breath is shallow and short. We might be breathing through the mouth and only breathing into the top areas of the lungs. That restricts airflow in the body and can cause tense or uncomfortable sensations. Maybe our heart feels like it’s racing, we get sweaty, or we feel tightness in certain areas. So, if we accidentally spill coffee on our shirt during an important work meeting, our rapid breath — a natural response to stress — might actually be making it more difficult for us to clean up, compose ourselves, and settle back into the agenda.

But research shows that deep breathing and other breathwork techniques help us calm down during moments of stress. When we intentionally breath deeper and through the nose, we might notice our breath is pushing out our stomach. This is a sign that our lungs are fully expanding and increasing airflow in the body — that’s just what we want. We’re also activating our “rest and digest” system, which tells the body to relax. Another study shows that deep-breathing exercises may help us improve our focus so that we can pay attention to our reactions and be more present (not caught up in our embarrassment or annoyance about that spilled drink).

How do I practice deep breathing exercises?

Just like meditation, deep-breathing exercises can be done anywhere and anytime. We can use them when we need them, like to shake off the jitters before an interview or first-date, or to feel less irritated when we’re stuck in traffic. But we can also practice breathing techniques regularly, even daily. We can start or end the day with breathwork in bed. We can take deep breaths after our workouts or workdays to help us recover. We can do breathing exercises every time we shower or brush our teeth. Tacking a new habit onto an existing routine makes it easier to add into our day.

The first step to a regular practice is to get comfy. Notice how our body is held and supported by the chair, the mat, or the bed. Just make sure the back and neck are straight to make it as easy as possible to breathe (sit up straight or if laying down, remove any pillows from behind the head). Close the eyes if it feels safe or gaze softly downward.

Now, pay attention to the breath. Is it long? Short? Deep? Shallow? Do we feel it in the nose or throat? Chest or belly? No answer is good or bad in this moment. We’re simply identifying it so we can become more aware of how our breath works and makes us feel. To take our awareness to the next level, we can notice throughout the day where and when we tend to hold our breath and when it feels relaxed.

If we decide that regular deep-breathing exercises are right for us, it’s important to note that we might still feel intense emotional or physical sensations during breathwork. It’s common for tingling to occur in the hands or toes, tightening or other feelings of discomfort in the body, and even changes in body temperature.

If this happens, it’s nothing to fear. We can pause the breathwork and return to normal breathing, bring our focus to an object in the room, stretch gently, or something else that helps to settle the body. Remember: these breathwork instructions are invitations. We can always stop or do something else entirely.

Which breathing exercise is best?

The best and most effective breathing exercises are the ones that work for each of us. Try the different practices and see what techniques and exercises fit. Then, we can use them as tools to help take control of our breath when everything around us feels out of control. In each of the techniques below, repeat for as long as it feels good.

Beginner? Take five deep breaths.

The simplest breathing technique is to count our breaths. Start by counting 1 on the slow inhale through the nose, 2 on the long exhale through the mouth, 3 on the inhale, 4 on the exhale, 5 on the inhale and release.

Use the Headspace app to breathe along to animations of a sleeping cat, fluffy white clouds, gentle waves, and more. We can also set a timer or count a number of breathing cycles on our fingers.

Racing mind? Lengthen each exhale.

Making our exhales longer than our inhales slows down both our heart rate and thoughts. Breathe in slowly through the nose to the count of 3, then exhale through the mouth to the count of 6.

If 3 and 6 are too long, try 2 and 4 breaths. Or to extend the exhale longer, try 4 and 8 breaths.

Anxious? Try belly breathing.

We’re not actually breathing into our belly here, but the belly will puff out when we fill up our lungs. It might be helpful to place a hand on the stomach so we can feel how it rises and falls when we direct our breath there.

Slowly breathe in through the nose and feel the belly push out. Slowly exhale through the mouth and feel the belly draw inwards.

Need to focus? Try box breathing.

For this breathing exercise, it might be helpful to imagine a box and its 4 equal sides. See it? This visualization will help us breathe and hold our breath for the same number of counts while we trace one corner to the next in our minds, all the way around the box.

Taking slow, deep breaths, inhale through nose for 4, hold the breath for 4, exhale through the mouth for 4, and hold the breath for 4 before we inhale again.

Overwhelmed? Try alternate nostril breathing.

This ancient yogic form of breathing is called Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, a method said to balance the left and right hemispheres in the brain and create a peaceful state of mind. This exercise is best to do sitting upright, with a long spine and relaxed shoulders.

Take the right thumb and close the right nostril, inhale slowly and fully through the left nostril, then pause. Use the right ring finger to close off the left nostril. Then release the thumb and exhale through the right nostril. Pause.

Leaving our fingers exactly where they are, we’ll breathe in through the right nostril, then pause. Use the right thumb to close off the right nostril. Then release the right ring finger and exhale through the left nostril. Pause. That’s one full count.

When we’re finished with deep-breathing exercises, we no longer need to breathe intentionally. So we can return to our normal breathing. While the breath is returning to its natural rhythm, take the moment to notice how the body and mind feel after we took the time to practice a little self-care.

Try 18 meditation for stress

Looking for meditations that help relieve stress? A healthier, happier you is a few breaths away.

The Headspace app has a Guided breathwork collection that offers members simple breathing techniques to relax the mind and body. Plus, a Reframe stress and relax collection of meditations and singles, including:

  • Letting Go of Stress course. Learn to reframe negative emotions and let them go.

  • Restlessness course. Learn to work with a restless mind more skillfully.

  • Transforming Anger course. Connect with anger and use it to train your mind.

  • Navigating Change course. Train your mind to be more comfortable with change.

  • How We Forgive Ourselves guidance. Being present helps us leave regret in the past.

  • Feeling Overwhelmed meditation. Give yourself room to breathe.

  • Burned Out meditation. Step away from worried thoughts.

  • Panicking meditation. Anchor your mind and body in the present.

  • Losing Your Temper meditation. Let go of whatever’s causing you to feel frustrated.

  • Flustered meditation. Bring an unsettled mind back to the subject at hand.

  • In Pain meditation. Change your relationship to physical pain.

  • Stress Release workout. Step away from stress and into the moment.

  • Unwind meditation. Lead your mind to a natural place of rest.

  • Restore meditation. Let go of any tension or busyness in the mind.

  • Frustrated meditation. Let go of tension and find a little peace of mind.

  • Stressed meditation. Recognize what’s occupying your mind and let it go. Taking a Break meditation. Press pause in the middle of your workday.

  • Reset meditation. Find some focus and relaxation during a busy day.

During times of stress and anxiety, don’t forget one of the most effective stress-management tools is right at the tip of our tongue — literally — whenever we need it.

A 6-Minute Breathing Meditation To Cultivate Mindfulness

6-Minute Breathing Meditation

  • 6:08

How do you cultivate mindfulness? One way is to meditate. A basic method is to focus your attention on your own breathing—a practice simply called “mindful breathing.” After setting aside time to practice mindful breathing, you’ll find it easier to focus attention on your breath in your daily life—an important skill to help you deal with stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, cool yourself down when your temper flares, and sharpen your ability to concentrate.

Time required:

15 minutes daily for at least a week (though evidence suggests that mindfulness increases the more you practice it).

The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.

Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s okay. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath. 

  • Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You could be seated on a chair or on the floor on a cushion. Keep your back upright, but not too tight. Hands resting wherever they’re comfortable. Tongue on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
  • Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe.
  • Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins.
  • Be kind to your wandering mind. Now as you do this, you might notice that your mind may start to wander. You may start thinking about other things. If this happens, it is not a problem. It’s very natural. Just notice that your mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing.
  • Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thought, then return to your breath.
  • Check in before you check out. After a few minutes, once again notice your body, your whole body, seated here. Let yourself relax even more deeply and then offer yourself some appreciation for doing this practice today.

You may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s okay. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Breathe along with this GIF to calm a stressed out mind. Focus on the sensation of your breath in and out.

 This article was adapted from Greater Good In Action, a site launched by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, in collaboration with HopeLab.

Breathing exercises for everyday life | Fitness

How to regain calmness under stress or, on the contrary, cheer up in a too relaxed state? These sensations can be learned to control with the help of breathing. Vladimir Duvanov, master yoga trainer at World Class, explains exactly how.

Breathing is directly related to our emotional and physical state. This influence is mutual. Thus, when there is a change on the physical or emotional levels, the breath also changes. And with a change in the rhythm and depth of breathing, the physical and emotional state changes.

Somewhere instinctively we know that when we are excited, it would be good to take a few slow and long breaths, and this is a very correct decision. In a stressful situation, breathing can be very accelerated or very slow, and then we consciously change the rhythm and depth of breathing. If it is necessary to act actively, for example, before a sports exercise that requires high impact, the athlete takes several very active breaths, thereby triggering the desired reaction in the body. Physiologically, this is based on a change in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

  • With more oxygen O2 in the blood (active and deep breathing), all processes are accelerated, the sympathetic autonomic nervous system activates excitation, starting many processes in the body through the hypothalamic-pituitary system for maximum efficiency.
  • With an increase in carbon dioxide CO2 in the blood (slow and shallow breathing), the dynamics of processes reverses, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active and starts inhibition processes, activity in the body and in emotions decreases. The muscles relax, the content of activity hormones (adrenaline) in the blood decreases.

This effect is used to quickly correct psycho-emotional and physical states - depending on the tasks at the right time. Another important nuance to mention is that breathing (inhalation and exhalation) should only occur through the nose, unless there are special instructions additionally.

In order to apply the necessary skills to correct the state in time in some non-standard situation, they need to be mastered and trained in advance. There is a special section in yoga practice for this - pranayama (breathing practices).

There are pranayamas that increase the activity of breathing and lead to the corresponding effect described above, and pranayamas that reduce the activity of breathing with the desired effect. And in order for the effect of breathing techniques to be the best, you need to provide access to fresh air - open a little window or window. Also, these techniques can be performed on the street, ideally in the forest.

  • Lengthening the exhalation

The simplest technique is to observe the breath and gradually lengthen the exhalation: the exhalation becomes twice as long as the inhalation (1:2). Inhale - for one unit of time (for example, during this time you need to mentally say "one" slowly), and exhale - for two units (say "one, two"). As a result of practicing this type of breathing, it gradually becomes controlled and comfortable and promotes relaxation. This can be used when you want to calm down during the day, or before bed. To fall asleep, continue this breathing technique until you fall asleep, while relaxing your body with each exhalation. For use during the day, 4-5 minutes of such breathing is enough.

  • Nadi Shodhana

The second technique is Nadi Shodhana pranayama, based on the connection of breathing with the work of the hemispheres. This is a practice with alternating inhalations and exhalations: first, inhale through the right nostril, then exhale through the right, and vice versa. It can be used at any time when there is a need to bring oneself into a calm, even state, balance the work of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, increase the degree of concentration on a task, or cope with some kind of obsessive state (anxiety, restlessness, excitement, irritation). The duration of this technique is 5-10 minutes.

  • Antar Khumbaka

The third technique can be Antar Khumbaka - holding the breath after exhalation. This technique requires careful and correct development under the supervision of an instructor. For beginners, a ratio of 1:1:1 is suitable. For example, inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for another 4, and then hold your breath for 4 seconds. It is very important to achieve calm, smooth and controlled breathing and retention in this technique. The delay after exhalation allows you to increase the concentration of CO2 in the blood, and lead to a state of relaxation.

  • Complete yoga breathing

In addition to balancing, there are also tonic breathing techniques. This is, for example, full yogic breathing. This is “voluminous” breathing, which begins with inhalation into the stomach, then into the chest, collarbones and shoulders, followed by exhalation in the opposite direction - just as consistent. Full yogic breathing is also performed only through the nose. It is useful for training the respiratory muscles, improving the excursion (expansion) of the lungs, improving lung function in conditions of difficult breathing (as now, when we are all forced to wear respirators and masks). It is best done in the morning, after waking up, as part of a morning workout, or separately as an independent practice. It is good to perform tonic breathing techniques in the morning, after waking up, and during the day, when you need to increase activity, “recharge your internal batteries”, for example, at the end of a working day - instead of a cup of coffee.

Breathing exercises | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center


Time to read: Approximately 3 min.

This resource describes breathing exercises that will help stretch and strengthen the breathing muscles. Doing these exercises will help you recover faster from infectious diseases that cause breathing problems, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and COVID-19..

Consult with your healthcare professional if any special precautions are necessary before engaging in any exercise. If mild discomfort turns into pain, contact your healthcare provider.

The diaphragm, chest wall (thorax), and abdominal wall muscles (abdominals) help you breathe.

  • The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. On inspiration, it contracts. By taking very deep breaths, you can strengthen this muscle.
  • On exhalation, the muscles of the chest and abdominal wall contract, especially when coughing. Intense exhalation through pursed lips (as when blowing out candles) helps to strengthen these muscles.

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or other respiratory infections, do these exercises only when you are alone. Deep, intense breathing releases bacteria and viruses into the air that can infect people nearby.

Cough splitting

Pressing a pillow against your stomach when you cough will help you cough properly and make the process less painful. This is called "splitting" the cough. This technique can be used whenever you need to cough, including when you are doing these exercises (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Cough splitting

You can do each of the exercises 3 times a day (morning, afternoon and evening).

Shoulder Rotation

Shoulder Rotation is a good warm-up exercise as it slightly stretches the chest and shoulder muscles.

  1. Sit comfortably or lie on your back on the bed with your arms relaxed and at your side.
  2. Move your shoulders forward, up, back and down in a circular motion (see figure 2).

    Figure 2. Shoulder rotations

  3. Repeat 5 times.

Try to make as big a circle as possible and move both shoulders at the same time. If you feel some tightness in your chest, start with smaller circles and increase them as your muscles relax.

Diaphragmatic breathing

This exercise can help relax the chest wall and abdominal muscles.

  1. Lie on your back or sit in a chair with a back.
  2. Place one or both hands on your stomach (see Figure 3).

    Figure 3. Diaphragmatic breathing

  3. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose. The abdomen should rise, but the upper chest should remain still and relaxed.
  4. Exhale slowly through pursed lips (as if blowing out candles). As you exhale, slowly and gently pull your belly towards your spine.
  5. Repeat 5 times.

Scapular Compression

Scapular Compression is a good way to expand your chest wall and straighten your ribs to take a deeper breath.

  1. Sit in a chair with a back or lie on your back on a bed.
  2. Starting position - arms along the body, relaxed, palms pointing up. Gently pull your shoulder blades together and lower them down (see Figure 4). In this case, your chest should stick out like a wheel.

    Figure 4. Vane Compression

  3. Inhale through your nose and exhale through pursed lips (like blowing out candles).
  4. Rest 1-2 seconds and repeat the exercise 5 times.

Chest stretch with arms above head.

The overhead chest stretch is great for relaxing the chest muscles and allowing air to move in and out of the lungs. It helps to increase oxygen levels throughout the body.

  1. Sit in a chair with a back or lie on your back on a bed.
  2. Carefully draw the shoulder blades together and lower them down.
  3. Clasp your hands and slowly raise your arms above your head as high as you can while inhaling deeply (see Figure 5).

    Figure 5. Stretching the chest muscles with arms above the head.

  4. Exhale as you slowly lower your arms.
  5. Rest 1-2 seconds and repeat the exercise 5 times.

Rapid Nose Breathing

This exercise can help strengthen the diaphragm and inhale more air.

  1. Sit in a chair with a back or lie on your back on a bed.
  2. Inhale deeply through your nose, then quickly inhale through your nose at least 3 more times (without exhaling) (see Figure 6).

    Figure 6 Rapid nasal breathing

  3. Exhale slowly through pursed lips (as if blowing out candles).
  4. Rest 1-2 seconds and repeat the exercise 3 times.

Deep Breathing 4-8-8

This exercise increases the level of oxygen throughout the body.

  1. Sit in a chair with a back or lie on your back on a bed.
    Learn more