You probably don’t think much about how you breathe. But the way you breathe can have a huge effect on your stress level. Which means you can use your breath as a tool to calm down.
When stressed, most people turn into chest breathers. They tense up and breathe shallowly from their chest, instead of deeply from their belly. This shallow breathing then tells the brain, “All is not well, keep being stressed!” It can become a vicious cycle.
If you’re chronically stressed, you’ve probably learned to chest breathe. So, even when you’re relaxed, you don’t breathe deeply. Chest breathing is fast, shallow, and jerky. It fills mainly the upper lungs. And it’s not good for you. During chest breathing:
- You take in less oxygen—which can trigger the stress response
- You breathe out less carbon dioxide—which can leave you sluggish
- Your neck and shoulders tense up—trying to help you breathe
Belly breathing, on the other hand, involves taking deep breaths from the belly. It works your diaphragm and fills your lungs fully. This is the way babies breathe. This is our natural way of breathing. And it’s good for you. Belly breathing:
- Triggers your body’s relaxation response
- Allows you to take in more oxygen and fully breathe out the carbon dioxide
- Lets your neck and shoulders stay loose
The next time you’re stressed, try this simple belly breathing technique to calm down:
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Rest one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose—notice your belly rise under your hand.
(The hand on your chest should stay still.)
- Breathe out through your mouth—notice your belly fall under your hand.
- Take two more deep breaths like this.
- Now just breathe naturally for a while, noticing your belly hand rising and falling.
- Notice when you start to feel calmer.
Simple, right? But powerful. If this exercise feels unnatural, you’ve probably learned to breathe from your chest. Practice it a few minutes a day to retrain your breathing.