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Using Your Breath

Updated September 28, 2020

Nikki Prosch

SDSU Extension Health & Physical Activity Field Specialist

A young man with his eyes closed focusing on his breath.

Written by Anna Barr under under the direction and review of Nikki Prosch.

We intuitively know that breathing is associated with our emotional and physical state. Take these examples: when we are frustrated, we exhale deeply with a sigh. When we are scared, our breath becomes quick and shallow, even gasping for air. When we are worried, a friend tells us to “take a breath” or reminds us to “breath.” Panic attacks are marked by shallow and restricted breathing. When we feel most restful and at peace, our breathing is slow and rhythmic. Through these examples, it is easy to see that breathing is affected by our emotional and physical state, but the opposite is also true. The way we breathe can also have positive or negative impacts on our emotional and physical health.

Stress, Breath, and Our Bodies

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. Slow breathing exercises can help counter the accumulation of minor tension associated with stress.

The human nervous system has two branches that act opposite each other in states of stress and calm, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system acts in stress (fight or flight) while the parasympathetic nervous system acts in calm (rest and digest). When we have a stressor in life, this can show up as increased blood pressure and heart rate due to the effect of the sympathetic nervous system on the body. In order to slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and have an overall feeling of calm, we need to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing slowly and deeply triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to engage, leading to a feeling of calm rather than stress.

Breathing Strategies for Stress Relief

If you find that your day, or even moments throughout the day, are marked by stress, the following breathing strategies may be techniques to try. To enhance these breathing methods, sit or stand straight, relax your body, remove distraction, and focus on the sensation of your breath. When thoughts begin to distract you, put them aside and redirect your attention to your breath. If you begin to feel dizzy, resume your regular breathing pattern.

365 Method

  • Three times a day, breath six breath cycles per minute for five minutes.
  • One breath cycle means to inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds.
  • This breathing method can bring immediate feelings of relaxation.
  • Practice this technique every day (365 days) for maximum benefit.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

  • Gently applying pressure to one nostril with your thumb, breathe in and out slowly through the opened nostril.
  • Continue inhaling and exhaling from the open nostril, keeping the thumb on the opposite nostril to remain closed.
  • This method will slow the rhythm of your breath.
  • After completing a few breaths holding one nostril, switch and apply pressure to the alternate nostril.

Belly Breaths (diaphragmatic breathing)

  • Inhale and breath into your belly rather than your chest, feel the lower part of your diaphragm, just above your belly button, filling with air like a balloon.
  • Exhale slowly.
  • This technique draws away tension in the chest and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to “rest and digest,” which may help lower blood pressure and reduce stress.

Box Breathing

  • Slowly and deeply inhale through your nose while counting up to 4, then hold your breath for another slow 4 counts and slowly release the air with an exhale through your mouth while again slowly counting to 4.
  • Hold your breath after the exhale for another 4 counts before starting the box breath again.
  • During these “box” cycles, be conscious of the air entering and exiting your body.

Pairing Breath with Reassuring Thoughts

  • No matter the breathing method you choose, syncing breathing to positive thoughts can help soothe emotional stress.
  • Breathe in an affirmation (i.e.: “I inhale peace”, “I inhale relaxation”) and breathe out a stressor (i.e. “I exhale worry”, “I exhale anxiety”).
  • The specific reassuring thoughts can be adjusted to meet whatever feelings you are having in the moment.
  • Taking the time to focus on our breath and have positive thoughts are good techniques to further practice stress relief.


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