The best breathing exercises for stress

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.

Stress Statistics, The Mental Health Foundation.

Stress, Mental Health Foundation.

What is stress, Mind.

Researchers find out why some stress is good for you, UC Berkley News.

Get help with Stress, NHS.

Workplace stress statistics, Ciphr.

90% of Americans say money impacts their stress level, according to survey, CNBC.

Madeline Woolgar, Moms Who Thrive.

Sarah Berthon, Excel Against The Odds.

Stress effects on the body, American Psychological Association.

How do breathing exercises reduce stress, Calmer.

Why breathing is so effective at reducing stress, Harvard Business Review.

Breathing exercises for stress, NHS.

Geraldine Joaquim,

Cat Merrick, Breathe, Dance & Yoga.

4-7-8 Breathing,

Box Breathing, WebMD.

The top 6 coping strategies for stress management

The top 6 coping strategies for stress management

Published on October 7th 2022.
Written by Jenna Farmer.

Whether it’s worrying about meeting a deadline or dwelling over one of those ‘should I have said that?’ moments, many of us find ourselves trying to tackle stress management on a regular basis. In fact, a huge 84% of Americans report that they feel stressed every single week.

It doesn’t have to be big, life-altering events to make you feel stressed on a permanent basis. 32% of us say money actually causes us to worry the most, whilst workplace problems are top of the list of stressors for over 10% of us. 

Whilst it might reassure you to know that stress is pretty common it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to do something about it as long-term elevated stress hormones aren’t ideal. “Ongoing chronic stress can impact our body-for example, over time you may not digest your food well or find your menstrual cycle becomes erratic.” says Nutritional Therapist Anna Mapson. Whilst it’s unrealistic to say we’ll never get stressed again, teaching your body the best ways to manage stress is beneficial. We chat to the experts to bring you the best science-backed coping strategies for stress.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

1. Listening to music can help tackle stress 🎷

Whether you prefer to unwind to Beethoven or dance around your living room to Britney, turns out music is a great tool for managing stress. Research has found listening to music impacts the body’s psychological stress system whilst another study found it can actually impact your heart rate and even your levels of cortisol (that super important stress hormone). Curating a playlist of feel-good tracks could be ideal for situations you know you’re likely to be stressed: such as on your morning commute or in the doctor’s waiting room.

“If you’d like to create a playlist to help you feel relaxed, first start with music that meets you at your current feeling state-so if you’re agitated, play music that’s fast paced and maybe a little higher pitched. Then choose tracks that will gradually move away from that feeling state-so slower tempos, quieter music with softer instrumentals or vocals.” advises Music Therapist Marianne Rizkallah.


2. Schedule downtime in your day to cope with stress 📆

We might schedule in a zoom call or a gym class but do you actually schedule downtime into your day? Most of us don’t but it’s so important. 

“I normally recommend a patient gets adequate downtime and relaxation away from their stressors, regardless of whether that’s work, parenting, or caring duties. I recommend people do a combination of low energy cost (napping, Netflix, colouring in or playing games on your phone) and higher energy cost activities (such as socialising, learning a new skill or being creative by playing an instrument). Being boundaried about what you will and will not take on is also really important so that you don’t get overloaded, such as not taking on too many projects at work or not answering emails after work.”  says GP Dr Claire Ashley.

With more of us working from home or adopting a hybrid working routine, it’s even more important to separate your life and work. “Closing the stress cycle is very helpful too, so that’s a ritualised activity that you do at the end of your working day to signal to your body that the stress is over and that you can relax.  Some people enjoy doing some physical activity but it could be having a shower and a cup of coffee when you get in from work, or – for some – lying down and tensing all your muscles and then letting go is enough. “ adds Dr Claire Ashley.


3. Brain dump to tackle stress ✍️

Ever find yourself feeling stressed and can’t quite pinpoint why? Sometimes we know the specific trigger and it has a deadline to be resolved (e.g. we’re worried about a meeting with our boss tomorrow or the outcome of a hospital appointment next week) but other times stress just lingers and we’re not quite sure why we feel so panicky. 

This is when writing it down can really help. “Our brains simply can’t cope with holding onto every single thing at once so brain dumping is a fantastic tool whenever you feel stress creeping in. Simply write down everything in your head-from your to-do list to your feelings and emotions. Once it’s out of your head and on paper, it becomes much easier to sort through and gain control back!” says Bex Spiller, founder of the Anti-Burnout Club  

If you don’t feel up to writing, there are still a few things you can do to help: you might jot down notes on your phone, record it as a voice note or take notes in the Bearable app.


4. Take a nap when you’re feeling stressed 😴

Yes, really. Providing it’s okay to do so (napping at your desk in an open-plan office is not a great idea), naps are pretty great at banishing stress. Not only do they give you a much-needed energy boost in the afternoon (since stress in itself can be pretty draining) but they can actually help tackle panic too. The good news is that you don’t need to nap for hours for it to help – one study of nurses who took two fifteen-minute naps a day were less stressed – and concluded that napping was an effective remedy to reduce stress. Sign us up!


5. Curl up with a good book 📗

When we’re stressed, we often reach to digital devices to help calm us down. How often have you found yourself mindless scrolling on TikTok or, even worse, frantically googling to try and calm yourself down? Switching off and reading a book instead may be beneficial for your stress levels: it has been found to reduce your stress levels by up to 68% and it helped banish stress more quickly than other activities like drinking a cuppa or going for a walk. According to the study, it only takes around six minutes until the effects of reading a book start to kick in-with your heart rate slowing down and tension in your muscle easing.


6. Tuck into protein-rich meals to help manage your stress levels 🧆

Protein-rich meals aren’t just for those working out, they can also help with the stress response. “When we’re in times of stress we often crave sugary carbohydrates which give you energy, since your body is looking for a quick release of glucose to boost the fight or flight response. Eating protein will slowly release energy and help keep you fuelled for longer,” explains Anna Mapson.  Studies have also shown that high-protein meals prevent our stress hormone cortisol from rising. Examples of high-protein foods are eggs, lean meats and dairy products.

It’s important to note that whilst these stress-busting tips are useful, if stress is getting on top of you, you may need some support from your GP, who may refer you for talking therapy or talk to you about medication options.

“It’s normal to go through periods of your life when you might feel stressed/overwhelmed, but if it starts to consistently affect people’s mood or their function then I would recommend speaking to their GP” advises Dr Claire Ashley.

Note. 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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