We tend to forget that one of the best stress relievers is always available to us: our breath. For instance, according to the American Institute of Stress, “Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.” This is in contrast to our sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our fight-or-flight response.
Deep breathing is one way we control our breath—and controlling our breath is exactly how we can reap the most stress-reducing benefits. In fact, there’s an entire field of study dedicated to managing our breath. “Breathwork is the use of Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing for healing and growth, personal awakening and transformation in spirit, mind and body,” writes Dan Brulé in his book Just Breathe: Mastering Breathwork for Success in Life, Love, Business and Beyond.
Before you start consciously controlling your breath, it’s important to watch it. Because as Brulé writes, you need to develop “a very conscious and intimate relationship with your breath.” For 10 to 20 minutes, observe your breathing without trying to change it. Try to be a “detached witness.” For instance, if you’re breathing through your nose, focus on the feelings and sensations in your nostrils as the air passes in and out. If you’re breathing through your mouth, focus on the feelings and sensations of your lips and tongue.
When your mind naturally wanders, bring your attention back to your breath. Brulé also suggests noticing how you breathe during different activities, such as walking and working; and noticing how others breathe while they’re talking, moving and feeling different feelings. Noticing how others breathe reminds you to observe your own breathing.
Below are four breathing exercises from Brulé’s book. They’re part of his 21-day challenge: He suggests readers practice each exercise for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening; and 10 times during the day for 2 minutes. For many of us, this might not be feasible. If that’s the case for you, try practicing for 10 minutes a day.
“The Therapeutic Zone”
According to Brulé, taking six breaths per minute is highly therapeutic. This means inhaling to a count of 5 seconds, and exhaling to a count of 5 seconds (which is: In, 2, 3, 4, 5; out, 2, 3, 4, 5…and repeat).
If taking six breaths feels uncomfortable, try eight or 10 or 12 breaths per minute. Then try to gradually slow down.
This ancient conscious breathing exercise is perfect “for getting control of runaway thinking, useless mental chatter, and an out-of-control mind,” writes Brulé. It involves using the thumb and ring finger of your right hand to block your right nostril, then your left nostril, and repeating the cycle.
Specifically, start by using your right thumb to block your right nostril. Exhale one breath through your left nostril. Next inhale one breath through the same nostril. Then, using the ring finger of your right hand, block your left nostril. Exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril. Then switch to your left nostril, exhaling and inhaling— and keep switching between nostrils.
“Combining Thought and Breath”
This exercise combines a phrase, affirmation or declaration with your breath. First, pick a phrase that resonates with you. For instance, you might use this phrase: “I am always already free.” Or you might choose a phrase that usually soothes and calms you. You might choose a supportive phrase your loved one or a mentor has said to you. Or you might incorporate something you value into your statement.
According to Brulé, “which each breath, stress one of the words in your statement. Breathe in each word until it percolates down through your subconscious mind to the core of your being.”
Picture yourself sitting or standing in a pool of water or light. As you inhale, draw the liquid light up through your body to the top of your head. As you exhale, picture the light flowing out of the top of your head and showering down on you like a fountain. Keep doing this with each breath.
The above exercises take practice. But what’s so amazing about using our breath to navigate stress is that it is always accessible. It is always with us—in a tense meeting, on a traffic-packed commute, during a difficult conversation, in a hospital room, right now. And best of all, controlled breathing is a truly healthy and nourishing tool—with no dangers or downsides.