Why Breathing is Your Best Defense Against Stress

Think about the most stressful situation you can remember experiencing. What are the physical sensations you associate with that time? Lightheadedness? Feeling weighted or unable to move? Blurry vision? Nausea?

Now think about a less stressful but still challenging time. Are any of those same feelings there, perhaps just less intense?

The body receives and interprets high-pressure situations using many of the same systems, regardless of the source of the stress. It’s why many of our reactions feel consistent or familiar across stressful events, whether we are stuck in traffic or feeling verbally attacked by a coworker.

While we can’t always control our stressors, we can control how we respond to them, and even more specifically, we can control how our mind and body feel in response to these events. There’s just one simple trick: breathing.

We’ve compiled advice for how to breathe in different scenarios, as well as a list of breathing exercises you can do to combat those moments of feeling like it’s all just too much.

How to breathe to handle different situations

At work

It probably won’t surprise you that a bulk of the stress we experience day to day can come from our jobs. The stakes are often high and the pressure can be intense, no matter what line of work you’re in.  

When it comes to handling stressful coworker interactions in the workplace, it’s important to realize what you can and cannot control. If a colleague explodes at you, try stepping away for a moment to collect your thoughts. Take a handful of deep, calming breaths, breathing in the things that you can control (positivity, understanding, openness) and breathing out the things you can’t control, like the reactions and behaviors of others.

Breathing can also be an effective tool when assessing the effects of a stressful workload. Sit quietly for a moment and breathe in for three counts, then out for three counts. Breathing to ground yourself into the reality of your stress can turn “I will never get this all finished” into “Good enough is good enough.”

With family

Family time can be challenging, especially if you don’t see your folks often. Erica Basso, an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Woodland Hills, California, recommends spending five minutes prior to a family event practicing slow, meditative breaths, as well as conducting frequent “emotional check-ins” with yourself. If you find yourself getting stressed out, breathe deeply into your diaphragm to access how you’re really feeling and identify which needs are unmet in the given moment. Remove yourself from the stressful situation if you can and breathe until things settle in your body.

In relationships

Feeling stressed out by the people you find yourself in relationships with can be exceedingly challenging. There are a lot of emotions and attachment at play, which can make the experience feel harder to work through (although it’s often very much worth it!).

Jennifer Sutton of What If Wellness recommends asking new questions and just being still with those questions while breathing slowly to let the brain do the work of seeking the answers.

“If someone is stressed about their relationship, I might have them ask, ‘What if everything is falling into place perfectly for me to have great joy and love in my relationship?’ or ‘What would my life look like if my relationship was moving in the direction I most want?’” Simply ask the question, take a few deep breaths and access the feeling that you would have if these things were true in your life. Just feel that feeling, breathe deeply and hold the question in your mind.

When things just feel really big and out of control

Sometimes the last thing that feels available to you when you’re overwhelmed or intensely challenged is a connection to a time when things were better or at a very minimum, just not quite this stressful. “We cannot silence the mind, but we can shift the pattern by “choosing” the thoughts to meditate on and to incorporate breathing techniques,” says Miriam Amselem, Holistic Nutritionist at Naturally Healthy by Miri.

Jennifer recommends capturing the feelings of ease and peacefulness from previous moments in your memory to help tamp down the fireworks of your current situation. Sit with this practice for anywhere from one to five minutes to notice a shift in your mindset and a reduction in your stress response.

Breathing exercises you can do right now

We asked Rashmi S. Bismark, MD, MPH with Yoga Medicine®, for some of her most tried-and-true exercises to stay on top of your stress. Here are some of her favorites:

Pausing in the moment

Two Feet, One Breath: This is a lovely pause that can be done at any time to remember your presence in the body. Simply bring attention to feeling the sensations of each foot, one at a time, grounding into the floor below, and then settle attention upon one breath one full inhale and one full exhale.

Inviting relaxation

If the breath is a safe anchor for you, consider exploring the potential for breath to promote relaxation in the body. Simple breathing exercises such as matching the length of each inhale and exhale or slightly prolonging the exhale, can tap into the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest and digest” mode of being.

Lion’s Breath: Taking in a deep breath, allow the exhale to release deeply with an audible sigh, or “Ahhhh,” through the mouth, open wide, like a lion. This emphasizes the exhale, continuing to promote physiological relaxation. It also may relax the face and neck muscles while inviting a bit of fun and humor.

Befriending yourself

Affectionate Breathing: Explore allowing the breath to be a vehicle for compassion within you. If it feels right, place a hand over the heart, paying close attention to the sensations of breath there. Allow yourself to savor the warmth and support this may provide. Explore sending this felt sense of care throughout the body with each breath, allowing it to soften and illuminate yourself from within. If it feels right, consider adding some phrases that feel natural to you and might express the support you need right now.

Examples of self-compassionate anchoring phrases include:

  • This is a challenging moment.
  • I am not alone in my struggles.
  • May I accept myself as I am.
  • May I give myself the compassion that I need.
  • May I feel peaceful, loving and free.

Other ways to ground your body in stressful situations

If it feels like breathing actually makes your stress worse, you’re not alone. If that is the case for you, try exploring a different anchor such as the sensations in a particular part of the body (feet on floor, sit bones upon a chair, back leaning into a support, hands upon the lap) or listening to sounds in the environment. Meditation can be another method of remaining mindful of stressors and mitigating their effects on the body. But one of the biggest things you can do? “Don’t be afraid to seek mental health care,” Dr. Bismarck advises. “Mental health professionals are a vital part of the process and can provide you with the support, expertise and perspective you may need.”

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.