6 Breathing exercises for anxiety and stress: Calm your mind and body

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Photo by Simon Rae

Have you been running around constantly? Never taking a moment to simply breathe or to be still?

Today to be busy is normal. We need to be seen as constantly productive and to be living our best lives. Our new busy lifestyles have resulted in us internalising our stress and anxiety in our body. We hold the extra stress and anxiety in our bodies and mind without fully realising it i.e. tension that might come in a physical form like a pit in your stomach or in a mental form like feeling overwhelmed.

“Take a deep breath” might seem like silly advice for overcoming stress. But breathing exercises have been shown to affect how we control our emotions and our reactions to different situations. Neurologists at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland found a link between breathing techniques and an increased ability to focus on tasks. Breathing techniques are a simple way to reset your mind and release the tension we have sorted in our body. 

Not sure where to start? We’ve made a list of 6 different breathing techniques that are easy to do.

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Box Breathing/Sama Vritti:

Box breathing is a simple breathing technique that does not require a lot of time. Used by US Navy Seals and pro athletes, box breathing helps to calm the mind by focusing on your breathing. It may seem simple, but taking deep breaths in and out has been shown to calm the mind and help us regain focus.

How to practice the Box Breathing Technique: 

  1. Sit in a comfortable upright position 
  2. Take a deep breathe in for the count of 4
  3. Hold your breath for the count of 4
  4. Exhale for the count of 4
  5. Repeat in this ratio at least 4 round
  6. Afterwards, sit with yourself and notice the difference in your body and mind

Box Breathing can be done almost anywhere and only it takes a couple of rounds to feel the difference. Next time you are feeling overwhelmed and don’t have much time, use the box breathing technique.

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Photo by Sam Carter

Diaphragm breathing technique

Diaphragmatic breathing is focused on strengthening your diaphragm. Studies have shown that it can reduce stress in adults.  Your diaphragm is an important muscle used in the breathing process. As you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and it does the opposite when you exhale. 

How to practice the Diaphragm breathing technique:

  1. Lie down on your back and bent your knees. Place a pillow under head and knees for support
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other one on your stomach
  3. Take slow breaths in through your nose. Let the air move deeply into your stomach. Your hand placed on your stomach should rise and your hand placed on your chest should remain still. 
  4. Purse your lips and gently exhale. Repeat this breathing for 5 minutes to fully calm the mind and body

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Photo by Abbie Bernet 

Nadi Shodhana or "alternative nostril breathing"

Nadi Shodhana nostril breathing is a technique used in Yoga practice to calm the mind and reduce anxiety and stress. It has been shown to reduce blood pressure and slow down your heart rate. Hillary Clinton used it throughout her 2016 election campaign to remain calm and in control. It is a quick and easy method which only requires yourself.

How to practice Nadi Shodhana or “alternate nostril breathing”:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position and ensure that your spine is straight 
  2. Place your left hand on your lap and bring your right hand in front of your face
  3. Place your right fingers between your eyebrows. Take a few deep inhales and exhales.
  4. When you feel ready, close your right nostril with your right thumb. 
  5. Use your left nostril to inhale deep breaths and exhale
  6. Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
  7. Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.
  8. Inhale through the right side slowly.
  9. Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb).
  10. Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.
  11. Repeat 5 -10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.

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Photo by Ella Jardim

4-7-8 Breathing or “relaxing breath”:

The 4-7-8 technique is a simple but effective way to calm your mind and regain control of your thoughts. Designed by Dr. Andrew Weil, it is easy to do in any position and does not require any additional equipment:

How to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique: 

  1. Sit in a comfortable position, preferably upright
  2. Inhale breath for the count of 4
  3. Hold your breath for the count of 7
  4. Exhale for the count of 8
  5. This is one breath cycle. Continue for another 3 breath cycles.

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Bhramari pranayama or Humming bee breath (bhramari):

Humming bee breath is used in Yoga to reconnect with our breathing and refocus the mind. It might seem silly to make humming sounds but this really helps to clear your system and get the most from this breathing technique. 

How to practice Humming Bee Breath:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position
  2. Inhale and exhale for a few moments. Observe your state and breathing
  3. When you are ready, place your hands on your tragus (the cartilage between your cheek and ear) 
  4. Inhale a deep breath
  5. When you have inhaled to fill your body, gently press your tragus and make a loud humming sound like a bee
  6. Repeat this breathing technique for 3-4 rounds or until you feel fully relaxed

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Photo by Federica Giusti

Breath focus:

Breath focus is the most basic method to focus the mind and calm your thoughts. It focuses on deep inhales and exhales while adding in a focus word or phrase. This is the perfect technique to use when you feel that your thoughts are overwhelming you and controlling you. 

How to practice breath focus:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position and observe your breathing 
  2. Begin to deepen your breath and feel it expanding your lungs and your stomach expanding
  3. Complete this deep breathing for 5 minutes
  4. When you feel ready, introduce a focus word or phrase. This can be one word like “Peace”, “Stillness” or “Calm”. As you inhale, repeat your focus word to yourself, hold your breath for a count of 2, as you exhale, repeat your focus word again.

Woman posing with the peace signPhoto by BBH Singapore

Breathing techniques are a great way to relax your mind and body during times of high anxiety or stress. They are simple to do and don’t require any additional equipment. Sitting still and becoming more aware helps your mind to refocus and regain control. To get the most benefit out of breathing techniques, try and practice them daily.

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