Mindful Breathing for Reduced Stress

By Tom Horvath, PhD, ABPP

image of a man practicing mindful breathing to reduce stressOne of the simplest but most powerful ways to reduce stress is to focus on breathing. Although books have been written on this subject, the following ideas may be a sufficient guide for you. Because we breathe continuously, you will have lots of opportunity to practice!

Less is More

Perhaps the most important single step to reduce stress is to breathe less, while breathing regularly, through your nose. A deep breath or two can get you started on “breath work,” but after those initial breaths, focus on breathing regularly but more slowly, and with lower volume of air. You are not going to reduce your rate of breathing instantly. However, over the course of many breaths your rate will (probably not entirely smoothly) reduce. With practice you might breathe as slowly as 6 breaths per minute (one every 10 seconds) and exchange less air as you do so. It is much less likely that, breathing in that manner, you will feel anxious. For many people this first step brings about a noticeable and sufficient reduction in anxiety.

Breathe Like a Baby

You may remember watching a baby sleeping on its back. Its little tummy goes up and down, as it breathes using its diaphragm rather than its chest. For many adults pushing the diaphragm down (toward the pelvis), resulting in our abdomen pushing out, feels wrong or at least unflattering. However, even a small movement of that type can be sufficient when it comes to mindful breathing.

For some people learning this diaphragm movement is challenging. You can push against your waistband or belt. You can lie down, place a book on your abdomen, and have it go up and down as you breathe. You can while seated lean forward, grasp your forearms hands behind your back, and notice that using your chest to breath is harder, allowing you to focus on diaphragmatic breathing.

Take It Down

If you are breathing diaphragmatically, focus on pulling your inhalation into your lower back (where the lungs extend farther down). That focus will also reinforce your diaphragmatic breathing and minimize the involvement of your chest.

Stop Breathing

For many of us the normal breathing rhythm is “in, out.” Try “in, out, pause.” In 4-square breathing you breathe “in, pause, out, pause,” taking 4 or 5 seconds for each phase. An advantage of “in, out, pause” is that you can completely relax during that pause, without needing to hold air in during the other pause. If you are lying down, you can completely relax every voluntary muscle in your body during that pause. With practice the pause can last many seconds, resulting in breathing only a few times per minute or less. If you want to be inspired, you might search for what experienced breath practitioners (such as yogis or deep sea divers) can accomplish with mindful breathing.

The Summary

Through your nose breathe less air, breathe more slowly, use your diaphragm not your chest to breathe, pull your inhalation into your lower back, and pause after each exhalation. This video is a great demonstration that involves several of these ideas.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even if you have mastered these mindful breathing ideas, they will not help if you do not use them! You could set alarms on your phone to remind about breathing. You could link breathing to other activities: when you reach for your phone, at regular transitions in your day, or when you are paused for other activities (logging in, sitting at a stoplight, waiting for someone to pick up the phone, etc.). Even slight re-sets of your stress level over the course of the day can lead to greater well-being by the end of the day, and less need to “do something special” (like have a drink or a hit) to relax.

If you or a loved one are interested in seeing how mindful breathing can help you recover from problematic substance use, our outpatient services might be a good fit. Please don’t hesitate to reach out – you don’t have to do this alone.