What are the best breathing exercises for stress?

Published on March 29th 2023.
Written by Jenna Farmer.

Stress is something we all deal with from time to time and sometimes it can feel like it’s taking over. 74% of us have felt overwhelmed with stress in the last year and for some of us, this can have real consequences. For example, one survey found that just under 30% of us admit to drinking more when we’re stressed and 16% start smoking (or increase how often they do it).

Stress can also impact many parts of our lives, for example, people who are stressed lose on average 24 days a year from work due to ill health.

Whilst banishing stress isn’t quite as easy as taking a few deep breaths, how we breathe can be a powerful tool for managing stress. If you’re finding yourself stressed right now, here are some of the best breathing exercises that can help with stress.

What is stress and when should I worry about it?

Stress is a general term to describe a feeling of being under pressure or in a situation that we’re struggling to deal with. We may experience stress suddenly after a big event (such as a change in job or moving house) or more long-term if we experience difficult circumstances, such as living with a chronic illness or money worries.

It might sound silly but occasional stress could actually be a good thing: it can help your brain’s performance and even make you more alert. However, when it sticks around for longer, it can cause more issues.

Long-term stress-sometimes called chronic stress- can cause physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches and digestion problems. It can also make it harder to concentrate and make you feel super overwhelmed. As a result, you might find making even the simplest decision (such as where to go for dinner) is difficult.

If you find yourself regularly stressed, you’re finding it tough to manage or simple stress-busting techniques aren’t helping, it could be a sign that you need some help dealing with stress.

What causes chronic stress?

There are so many different causes of stress so it really depends on your individual circumstances. Work is a common one: whether it’s the commute, workload or colleague relationship 23% of us say that work makes us stressed.

Money worries are also super common, especially right now. In fact, 90% of Americans say money impacts their stress levels. 

Family life is another common stressor, whether that’s juggling toddler tantrums or making time to see your loved ones. “There are a multitude of factors that contribute to why parenting is stressful. The most common I see is when parents face situations they’re not equipped to manage. For example, if their child displays a new type of behaviour they don’t know how to manage. Feeling ill-equipped or out of control are key triggers of stress,” says Madeleine Woolgar, a parent coach and behaviour expert who specialises in supporting parents with strong-willed children.

Living with a long-term health issue can also cause stress. “Having a chronic illness makes you particularly vulnerable to stress. It’s extremely stressful having to deal with medical professionals, as well as a lack of understanding surrounding chronic illness which can then leave you feeling isolated. To rub salt in the wounds, there can be financial implications for chronic illness sufferers and this alone can create a sense of overwhelm too,” says Sarah Berthon, a chronic illness business mentor.

How can breathing exercises help stress?

When we are stressed, it can actually impact our respiratory system. That’s why you might feel short of breath or find yourself breathing quicker when stress kicks in. Whilst this isn’t usually a medical emergency (the exception being if you have respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis) focusing on your breathing can help restore this to your normal pattern. This will help increase your oxygen levels and release any tension. 

Breathing exercises can also provide a welcome distraction from your stress and help you focus on one simple thing, which can allow you to quickly calm down and think more rationally.

Some research has found that a breathing programme when combined with meditation can help your stress levels and mental health; with it showing an immediate impact on stress.

How to do breathing exercises for stress?

If you’re not sure how to get started, there are lots of guides online for more mindful and focused breathing that take just a few minutes to complete. We asked some experts to share some of their favourites.

Nasal Breathing

“This one is super easy and it instantly relieves stress. Take a deep breath in through your nose, then immediately take another short sharp breath in through your nose (a sharp sniff).

When you’re stressed you tend to breathe shallowly, at the top of your lungs. The deep breath gets air right down to the bottom of your lungs, and the second breath snaps open the millions of tiny alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs, they’re the workhorses of your respiratory system) which improves your oxygen uptake) says Geraldine Joaquim

Clinical hypnotherapist and wellness coach.

Coherent Breathing

“If you have your hands free, place them on your belly or lower rib cage, otherwise just become aware of this area and direct your breath here. Slow your breath down, imagine you are breathing in a delicate thread of air that is reaching low down into the belly and then slowly exhale it (use the nose, not the mouth). Make your breath as slow as you can but aim for 5-6 seconds for the inhale and the same for the exhale. This is called coherent breathing and will bring your heart and brain into coherence so that you feel balanced, present and calm. You can sit or stand whilst you do this, it’s a breath that you can do any place, any time,” says yoga teacher Cat Merrick.

4-7-8 Breathing 

4-7-8 breathing is a breathing technique that activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the bit that helps you relax).  The idea is that you let your lips part and exhale completely through your mouth. Then you silently inhale through your nose whilst you count to 4. Follow this by holding your breath for seven seconds and then exhaling for a further 8.  Want to know if it makes a difference? Check out our 14-day 4-7-8 breathing challenge before bed on the Bearable app.

Box Breathing

Box breathing (also called square breathing) involves breathing in intervals of four seconds. First, breathe in and count to 4 slowly, then hold for a further four. Now exhale through your mouth for 4 more seconds. Repeat this cycle as many times as you can for around 30 seconds to help slow down your breathing.

What to expect from breathing exercises for stress?

It’s recommended to take around five minutes to complete breathing exercises when you’re stressed. Remember that the most important thing is to take a moment to breathe deeply, so don’t get hung up on mantras or counting each breath if it’s too distracting. After a few minutes, you should notice that breathing this way becomes automatic and you might start to feel less tense. Breathing exercises do need to be practised regularly to have a real impact, so if you find yourself stressed a short while later, just return to your breathing practice.

Don’t expect that breathing exercises are all you need to conquer stress. They are a very useful tool to practice the minute you find yourself tensing, but if this is a regular occurrence then you should chat with your GP about getting further help for your stress levels.

The benefits of tracking breathing exercises and stress

There are so many benefits to tracking lifestyle factors and self-care tools like breathing exercises. It’s a great way to see what tools are most effective in helping you quickly tackle stress head-on (so you know what to do as soon as you feel stressed) and it can be easily shared with your medical team if you do need some more support. 

It’s completely normal to feel stressed from time to time. Learning about breathing exercises can help you feel more in control of your stress and be equipped to best handle it when it does rear its ugly head.

Not sure where to start, why not try our in-app Breathwork experiment? It’s a 14-day challenge to track the impact of guided breathwork exercises on your health.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you’re seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment.

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Madeline Woolgar, Moms Who Thrive.

Sarah Berthon, Excel Against The Odds.

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Geraldine Joaquim, geraldinejoaquim.co.uk

Cat Merrick, Breathe, Dance & Yoga.

4-7-8 Breathing, Healthline.com

Box Breathing, WebMD.