9 Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief

9 Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief


1. Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, also known as nadi shodhana, is a simple breathing technique that’s often used to calm anxiety before yoga or a meditation session.

To practice alternate nostril breathing, assume a seated position with good posture that opens up your chest. Next, take the index and middle fingers of your right hand and rest them next to each other between your eyebrows (you can do this with your left hand if you feel more comfortable).

Now you’re ready to practice alternate nostril breathing:

  • Use your thumb to close the right-hand nostril and inhale slowly through only your left nostril
  • Pinch your nose closed by bringing your ring finger to your left nostril. Temporarily hold your breath
  • Open up your right nostril by removing your thumb and exhale
  • Hold for a moment before inhaling again through the right nostril
  • Pinch your nose closed again and hold your breath for a moment
  • Now open up the left nostril and exhale. Again, wait a moment before you inhale

That is one cycle of alternate nostril breathing, which can take anywhere up to a minute. Repeat the process for about 10 minutes or until you feel suitably calmed.

2. Lion’s breath

Like alternate nostril breathing, lion’s breath is a yogic breathing (or pranayama) exercise that’s predominantly done during a yoga session. However, its ability to alleviate stress makes it useful for anyone looking for a breathing exercise to calm themselves.

This one is done by sitting either in a chair or on the floor, with your hands on your knees or flat on the floor.

  • Spread your fingers wide and inhale through your nose
  • Open your mouth and stick out your tongue. Stretch it down to your chin
  • Do a big exhale, pushing the air across your tongue and making a ‘ha’ sound from the depths of your abdomen
  • Take a short break by breathing normally before starting again

Repeat the cycle several times to see the benefits. Yogic breathing practices like lion’s breath are proven to work effectively as a stress reducer. 

3. 4-4-4 breathing

4-4-4 breathing, commonly known as box breathing, is one of the easier breathing techniques you can practice to help you calm anxiety. It’s perfect as a quick fix for reducing stress, by distracting your mind and body. In fact, if you’ve taken a minute to breathe deeply then you’ve likely come close to box breathing.

  • Take a breath then exhale on the count of 4
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds
  • Inhale to the count of 4
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds

A few rounds of box breathing should help to keep a raised heart rate down and distract you from the anxiety-inducing situation around you. Sitting down with an extended spine and open chest is the best way to practice this technique, but it can be done stood up too.

4. 4-7-8 breathing

Also known as relaxing breath, 4-7-8 breathing follows the same principles as 4-4-4 breathing. Get yourself in a seated position, either in a chair or cross-legged on the floor or your bed.

  • Inhale to the count of 4
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale to the count of 8

Relaxing breath is the perfect pre-bedtime breathing technique, reducing feelings of tension and anxiety to help you get a better night’s sleep.

5. Pursed-lip breathing

For many breathing techniques, pursed lips can help to make your breathing more effective and purposeful. Pursed lips also have a dedicated technique of their own. You can do this when sat down or when you’re active.

  • Take a breath in slowly through your nose for 2 seconds. Keep your mouth closed
  • Purse your lips, as if you were about to whistle or sip through a straw
  • Exhale through your mouth while counting to 4

This technique is especially good at slowing the pace of your breath and limiting the distress caused by shortness of breath. Once you’ve mastered this technique, your breathing will be more efficient, helping your body do less work when breathing.

6. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a breathing technique with plenty of research supporting its benefits.

To practice it, take a seated position or lie down.

  • Place one hand on your chest and one just below your ribcage on your abdomen
  • Slowly breathe in through your nose, feeling the air move down to your abdomen
  • As you do, your belly will expand and push outwards but your chest should remain relatively still
  • Purse your lips and exhale slowly for a few seconds
  • Throughout, take note of how your stomach expands and contracts, but your chest makes only slight movements

For maximum effect, repeat this cycle a few times.

7. Resonance breathing

Resonance breathing, or coherent breathing, is another great way to reduce anxiety, respond positively to stress and bring about a more relaxed self. To start resonance breathing, lie down flat and close your eyes.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of 6. Be careful not to fully inflate your lungs
  • Gently exhale for 6 seconds
  • Throughout the process (around 10 minutes), focus on your body and how it feels as the air passes in and out

Evidence shows that resonance breathing can have positive effects on a wide range of anxiety, stress and mood related modifiers.

8. Long exhaling

Longer exhalations can help you to combat your fight or flight stress response and improve your heart rate variability – which, over time, can help us to deal better with stress. As a breathing technique, it means exhaling out for longer than you inhale.

  • Inhale for a short period, around 2 to 3 seconds
  • Pause at the top of the breath for a second
  • Exhale gently for double the time of your inhale, so around 4 to 6 seconds
  • Continue for at least 5 minutes and monitor your mood and feelings of anxiety for any improvements

When we’re stressed, too many big inhalations can lead us to engage our fight or flight instincts and hyperventilate. This technique, which can be done stood up, lying down or sitting, can help to keep those overwhelming feelings at bay.

9. Teddy bear breathing

Teddy bear breathing is very similar to diaphragmatic breathing, but adds a child’s toy into the exercise in order to engage younger people.

  • Place one hand on your chest. Place a teddy bear or toy on your belly and hold it with your other hand
  • Slowly breathe in through your nose, feeling the air move down to your tummy
  • As you do, your belly will expand and push the bear outwards. Your chest should stay almost where it is
  • Purse your lips and exhale slowly for a few seconds
  • Throughout, take note of how the bear moves up and down with your belly, but your chest makes only slight movements

You could try this one with your children, helping them to become more aware of their breathing and less worried about the world around them.

Benefits of breathing exercises 

Many of the breathing exercises above have benefits that have been extensively researched. The science behind why they work revolves around the vagus nerve, which is a part of your nervous system, that’s activated when you breathe deeply. The vagus nerve oversees your mood, digestion and heart rate. Tailored breathing exercises like these stimulate your vagus nerve, helping us respond better to stress and anxiety.

When you practice a breathing exercise, you’ll benefit from:

  • A more relaxed body
  • A lowered heart rate
  • Distraction from anxiety
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Stress reduction
  • Slower breathing for better energy conservation

Sources: Clare Gridley, Integrative Psychotherapist at Priory Hospital Woking, Psychology Today, Brigham Young University