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If there’s one thing most of us have in common, it’s stress. During busy times, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of our responsibilities, juggling work, kids, relationships, exercise, and all our duties at home. Fortunately, research suggests that we all have access to a superpower of sorts when it comes to busting stress: our breath.
“Your breath is your most powerful, accessible tool to focus, activate relaxation, and kick-start the recovery process,” says Erin Taylor, founder of Jasyoga and author of Work In: The Athlete’s Plan for Real Recovery and Winning Results.
When you breathe deeply, your brain receives more oxygen and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming. Your brain then sends this calming message into your body. Certain types of breathing and breathing exercises are better for stress than others, but “most breathing techniques are effective in just a few minutes,” Taylor explains. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try one of the following breathing exercises for stress.
How: Also known as abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, this technique can be used for a single breath or longer. “Simply inhale, inflating your belly as you focus on your lower abdomen, before allowing the breath to fill your chest. Then exhale, relaxing your belly completely and continue,” Taylor explains.
When: This can be used to help you keep calm in a stressful situation, like while dealing with a child’s outburst or in the midst of an argument with your partner. “When you’re tired or stressed, your breathing becomes more shallow, making it difficult to relax,” Taylor says. “Breathing into your lower abdomen helps to deepen your breath and move your attention downward, which is calming and grounding.”
How: All this basic breathing exercise requires is for you to breathe and count. “Focus on taking in deep, full breaths, filling your lungs completely on your inhale, then expelling all of the air out of your lungs on your exhale,” advises Beth Brombosz, a yoga teacher and running coach. “After each full round of breath—an inhale and exhale—you count a breath. You can count up to or down from 20, 50, 100 or whatever number you like.”
When: Beyond a breathing exercise for stress, breath counting is great for harnessing focus. Whether you’re sitting down to take a test or approaching a starting line, a racing mind can derail your ambitions. Breath counting is a great way to regain focus. “If you lose track of the number you were on, that tells you that you need to bring your attention back to your breath and away from whatever was stealing it,” Brombosz says.
How: Start by getting in a comfortable seated position, close your eyes, and take in several deep, full breaths through your nose. “Then bring attention to your feet, and as you continue to breathe deeply, begin to tense the muscles in your feet. Hold the tension for an inhale, then release on the exhale, imagining stress and anxiety leaving your body,” Brombosz says. Continue like this, gradually working up to your head and face.
When: This is a great exercise to implement while sitting at your desk at work or even during TV commercial breaks at night. “If you need to physically work out some extra energy or anxiety, adding a physical component like progressive relaxation can really help,” Brombosz adds.
How: This balancing exercise, also known as alternate nostril breathing, involves five rounds of breathing. “Cover one nostril with your thumb as you slowly inhale through your other nostril, then close your other nostril with one of your free fingers and pause before removing your thumb and slowly exhaling through that side,” Taylor says. “Keeping your finger-side nostril closed, inhale through the thumb-side nostril, close the thumb-side nostril and pause before opening your finger-side nostril and exhaling to complete a round.”
When: This is all about steadying yourself for a task. “It’s very calming and a great way to start the day or pregame your workout or race,” Taylor adds.
How: Set aside 2–5 minutes in a quiet place. “Begin by inhaling as you count in your head 1-2-3-4, then exhale as you count 1-2-3-4,” Taylor explains. “Keep slowing it down, and see if you can lengthen your count to 5, 6, or more.”
When: “Use this to help you focus and relax,” Taylor says. “It also comes in handy during workouts.” Whether it’s downtime between hill repeats or a few moments of quiet before the rest of the house wakes up in the morning, try the matching breath technique to calm the body and mind.