Harness Your Breath as a Hack for Stress and Anxiety
“Breathing was your first action when you came into this world,
and will be the last when you leave it.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing is something we tend to take for granted because it happens automatically, but the way we breathe has a big impact on our health and wellbeing – both physical and mental health. And it can also be a great “hack” for managing stress, anxiety, worry, and tension. In fact, harnessing the power of breathing to stay calm and collected, clear-headed and courageous is something that even surgeons and athletes do.
The problem with using breathing as a tool for feeling calm and collected, for managing stress and anxiety and improving performance, is that most of us aren’t “doing it right”. I know, that sounds crazy that we could get an automatic process like breathing wrong, but it’s actually quite a complicated process.
Breathing involves multiple dimensions:
Most people breathe from their chest and will take a longer in breath to try to calm down, but this isn’t effective and is actually conducive to anxiety. Think about it, have you heard people say, “take a big breath and calm down?” And then tried this only to find it didn’t work? Then you’ll know that not all types of breathing are created equal when it comes to stress and anxiety and finding your calm. Did you know that breathing in activates energy because it activates the sympathetic nervous system, and that breathing out is calming because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for the relaxation response, so it makes sense physiologically that it’s the out breath that makes a difference, and just taking big in breaths won’t be helpful for calming down….and could even make you feel more activated.
This means it is important to regulate your breathing with strong, steady breaths, being sure that your in breath isn’t taking over from the out breath. Regulating your breathing will regulate your heartbeat as well as your muscle tension and strength. It will also help you to focus and give you a sense of peace.
Take a moment to practice your strong steady breathing:
Breathe in deeply and slowly, hold your breath for a second between breathing in and breathing out, and make sure both in and out breaths are strong and steady. Make sure the breath is going all the way down past your chest to your diaphragm. You’ll know you are breathing deeply because your belly will move up and down with the in and out breath.
Practicing this for even just three minutes a day can make a difference.
You can supercharge strong steady breathing by placing your hand on your heart. Placing your hand on your heart while doing your strong steady breathing will connect you to the beat of your heart and release oxytocin. What’s oxytocin and how does it help? Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain and it’s very powerful for anxiety. It’s released when we are feeling close to important people in our life and so it’s often called the bonding chemical, but we can also release it in ourselves by placing our hand on our heart for strong steady breathing. When we do this, we release oxytocin and the fantastic thing is that the amygdala, the body’s alarm system, has receptors for oxytocin and can be calmed this way.
Another way to supercharge your strong steady breathing is with visualisation. I like to use nature metaphors and for breathing a great metaphor is ‘tree breathing’. Do this by imagining your feet are planted barefoot in the grass or ground. Now begin strong steady breathing, and as you are breathing imagine you are feeling the warmth of the sun and breathing in nutrients through your leaves, funnelling the nutrients down into your body. Visualisation is a powerful technique that can boost your breathing and help you find calm.
For some people strong, steady breathing isn’t quite enough in stressful or tense situations, or when anxiety tries to take over. A great breathing hack for these times is the longer out breath technique, sometimes called “simple to double”. Research shows that longer exhalations are an easy way to combat the fight of flight stress response, and that we can trigger a relaxation response by “simply focusing on the inhalation-to-exhalation ratio of our breathing, and consciously extending the length of the exhale” (Christopher Bergland, 2019). This is a great way to soothe your nervous system.
How does the longer out breath technique work?
First, it’s helpful to understand the body’s stress response and anxiety. Anxiety is your body’s natural survival mechanism. There’s a part of your brain, called your amygdala, that fires up to protect you when it thinks there might be danger. Your amygdala activates the oxygen, hormones, and adrenalin in case you need to be strong, fast, and powerful for a fight or flight response. This fight or flight response was great for evolution and it’s great when there’s real danger, but these days the problem is that your amygdala doesn’t know if there is real danger or not, and it can go off like a smoke alarm sensing burnt toast, rather than for a fire, leaving you feeling stressed and anxious.
The parasympathetic nervous system is activated with a longer outbreath and counterbalances the fight or flight stress response. It’s kind of like the brakes in a car because it slows down the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. During exhalation, a transmitter is released that causes deceleration within beat-to-beat intervals of heart rate via the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is more like the accelerator – fuelling anxiety by pumping adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones into your nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system also facilitates a brief acceleration of heart rate. While we definitely want a certain amount of stress in life, the “good stress” (or eustress as we call it) for optimal arousal and performance, too much stress is “bad stress” (or distress) and has negative implications for health and wellbeing.
Take a moment to practice your longer out breath breathing:
Take a strong steady inhalation, and then slowly begin to elongate your exhale until it becomes twice as long as your in breath. Counting can help e.g., start with inhaling for 2 and then exhale for 4, then inhale for 3 and exhale for 6, then inhale for 4 and exhale for 8.
Practice this for a minute or two and notice what ratio feels right for you. E.g., Some people prefer breathing in for 4 and out for 7. It doesn’t have to be exactly double, the out breath just needs to be longer than the in breath.
You’ll find that children and young people will have different breathing because of their development so don’t try to get them to match you, just coach them in finding their own rhythm.
Harnessing the power of breath as a stress or anxiety hack is a fantastic way to tend to your nervous system. Imagine if the next time you had a deadline at work, or a tense conversation with a colleague or family member you could harness the power of breath. Imagine if the next time anxiety tried to take over you could be calm and clear headed with this great breathing hack. What difference would this make for you? What could it make possible?
It’s also a fantastic hack to share with your family, and to teach your children. Imagine if the next time your child or teen had to sit an exam at school, or was feeling nervous about their soccer game, they could draw on the power of breath. What difference would this make for them? What could it make possible for them?
It’s always fantastic to develop a toolkit of strategies and hacks. Will the power of breath be one of yours?
If you'd like an easy-to-use resource for these breathing hacks click here
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
Photo Attributions - Veecteezy Pro
Beaudoin, M. & Maki, K. (2011). Mindfulness in A Busy World: Lowering Barriers for Adults and Youth to Cultivate Focus, Emotional Peace, and Gratefulness. Rowman & Littlefield: New York.
O’Connell, K. & Regan, L. (2020). Find Your Calm: Activities to Help When You’re Feeling Anxious. Arcturus: London.
Karen Young – Hand on Heart YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJJdCFEsGNU
Karen Young – Hey Warrior Training Workshop 2022 (Compass Seminars Australia).