Breathing exercises to reduce stress & anxiety

Life is stressful!  There is no getting away from it, all of us face some sort of stress in our lives, sometimes on a daily basis.  Stress is a response to a threat in a situation, stress from work, from responsibilities – work or family related, relationship issues, sickness, loss of a loved one, money, the list goes on.  Anxiety is a reaction to the stress.

So, what is happening to our bodies when we are faced with chronic stress and anxiety?

Stress and anxiety activate the autonomic nervous system, the flight or fight response, which can affect the body in a number of physiological ways, including; an increase in heart rate, heart palpitations, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, chest pains, sweating, headaches, insomnia, irritability, uncontrollable muscle tension, trembling, feeling faint, tingling in hands, arms, legs.  Tightness in the throat, dry mouth, problems with speech and a feeling of losing control.

You can learn how to reduce the impact of stress and manage your symptoms by learning techniques to positively affect your nervous system by down regulating the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight) and upregulating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

breathing exercises

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The parasympathetic nervous system is controlled by the longest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve.

In order to have good control of the vagus nerve over your heart rate, we need good vagal tone.  Vagal tone is the difference between your heart rate when you are inhaling and your heart rate when you are exhaling.  Typically, when you inhale, your heart rate speeds up slightly and when you exhale it lowers.  The bigger the difference between your heart rate during inhalation and exhalation means your vagal tone is higher, which is good as this means you are more able to relax your body after a stressful situation, so vagal tone is key to activating your parasympathetic nervous system.

Apart from being able to relax faster after a stressful situation, a higher vagal tone also means you have better functioning systems;

  • Better blood sugar regulation.
  • Decreased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
  • Generally lower blood pressure.
  • Better digestion, due to proper production of digestive enzymes.
  • Fewer migraines.
  • Less depression.

One of the ways we can positively affect our vagal tone and therefore parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the impact of stress and anxiety, is through breath work.

In order to breathe fully and functionally, the diaphragm, our main respiratory muscle, must be able to expand and contract to its full ability.  Studies have shown that in situations of tension and emotional stress, the diaphragm shows hypertonicity by becoming flattened and immobile, inhibiting it from expanding fully, our oxygen intake reducing, and in turn, causing shorter, shallower breaths.

The overall aims of these breathing strategies are to breathe fully, deeply and functionally and to slow down your breathing and heart rate, lowering stress and anxiety levels.

Find yourself somewhere as quiet and as relaxing as possible to sit, away from any stressors, any technology and allow yourself to have some time for you.  Try some of the following breathing exercises and find the one that works best for you.


360 breathing – a technique to improve the 360 expansion of your lungs and respiratory muscles, use your hands on the areas that you can reach so you can feel that you are breathing into the correct area.  You are wanting to feel just a gentle swell in each of these areas.

  • Taking a deep breath in, focus on breathing into your chest, slowly breathe out.
  • Taking a deep breath in, focus on breathing into your abdominal wall, slowly breathe out.
  • Taking a deep breath in, focus on breathing into ribs, expanding to the sides, breathe out slowly.
  • Taking a deep breath in, focus on breathing into the middle of your back, breathe out slowly.
  • On your next breath in focus on expanding into all of these areas, your chest, abdominal wall, ribs and the middle of your back. Slowly breathe out.
  • Try breathing in for a count of 4, pausing and then breathing out for a count of 4.
  • Continue this for 5 minutes.


Square breathing – Square breathing can connect you more deeply with your body, calm your nervous system, and decrease stress in your body.                               

  • Breathe in for a count of 4
  • Hold for a count of 4
  • Breathe out for a count of 4
  • Hold for a count of 4
  • Repeat for 5 minutes

Alternate nostril breathing – is a simple yet powerful yogic breath technique that settles the mind, body and emotions.

  • Close your right nostril with your thumb
  • Inhale through your left nostril
  • Release your right thumb and close your left nostril with your index finger.
  • Exhale through your right nostril
  • Inhale through your right nostril, close your right nostril with your thumb.
  • Exhale through your left nostril
  • Repeat the circuit, aiming for equal inhales and exhales, working up to 4 count breaths then 8 count breaths.


  1. Try not to force the breath
  2. Don’t be tempted to speed up the counting during exhalation.
  3. Stop if you experience any discomfort
  4. Allow your breathing to return to normal before standing up and moving.

As adults we don’t take enough, if any, rest, we are on the go constantly moving from one thing to the next.  Try incorporating 5 minutes of breath work into your daily lives, whether you need to take a break during a stressful day at work or maybe take the time 5 minutes before bed to really try to rid yourself of the days stressors, slowing your breathing and heart rate down and preparing your body and mind for a good night’s sleep.

Improving your breath through breathing strategies and massage can not only help to improve your levels and coping mechanisms of stress and anxiety, but improving your breathing can also help to improve back pain, pelvic floor function and the effects of conditions such as COPD and asthma.

We breathe 18-20,000 times a day, why not make some of them count?!

If you are really struggling to manage your stress and anxiety levels please seek help, you are not alone.   Here is a link to the NHS stress and anxiety page.

If you are interested in finding out more about any of the therapies we offer, that can help with stress and anxiety, please contact the clinic.

Naomi Qualters-Fry BSc Hons, ISRM

Clinical sports massage therapist, Pregnancy & postnatal soft tissue therapist, Scar massage therapist