Relaxing breathing techniques for Stress & Anxiety

The human body is quite amazing, isn’t it? Without any conscious control, unimaginable numbers of processes are taking place to keep us alive and vital.
And yet, though we aren’t directly controlling these unconscious processes, the thoughts we have in our mind and the way we move our body can affect a whole cascade of reactions in our system.
Some of these reactions are what we experience as anxiety: stress hormones increasing our heart rate and breathing, ‘wired’ energy rushing through our body, and the feeling of being unsettled. When this cycle perpetuates for long periods of time, your system can get so depleted that you go into shutdown: you experience lethargy, lack of motivation and a pessimistic attitude.
No one chooses these symptoms; it just feels like they are happening TO you. However, though you can’t just tell your body to produce happy hormones and drop into a contented state, you do have indirect access to these exact responses.
What we’re talking about here is going from ‘fight or flight’ (the stress response) to ‘rest and digest’ (the relaxation response). Our moment-by-moment state lies somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes; one or the other will be dominant, depending on what your brain deems as an appropriate reaction to your current situation.
We need both states. The stress response gets us up in the morning, allows us to get excited, and mobilises us when necessary. The issue is when we begin to live in this activated state, because it uses up our energetic resources and can cause us to ‘break down’ or ‘burn out’. You may experience this level of chronic activation as always feeling rushed, or constantly planning or worrying. In other words, you’re always ‘doing’ and never ‘being’.
Our human organism requires periods of rest and functions best when our default mode is closer to the calm end of this energetic spectrum. When the ‘rest and digest’ state of the nervous system is dominant, our resources go to healing parts of the body that experience general wear-and-tear, as well as more serious degeneration and injury. If we spend too much time towards the stressed end of the spectrum, we’re not allowing our batteries to recharge and our digestive, immune, reproductive and musculoskeletal systems can start to wear down.
So, what’s the magic strategy for choosing to be calm rather than stressed?
Well, there are a few practices that act as doorways to regulating the nervous system. One of the most powerful, accessible and immediate ways is through breathwork.
Breathing has a two-way communication with the brain: the state of the brain affects the breath, and the state of the breath affects the brain. In other words, if the brain determines that you’re under threat, it will instruct your breathing to increase so you can get more oxygen to address said threat.
It can be challenging to change your thoughts instantly if you’re in a stress loop — though there are meditation techniques that make this entirely possible with practice! But it’s much easier to change the way you’re breathing for instant feedback to your brain that you are indeed safe.


Three aspects of breathing reliably usher you into the relaxation response: speed, mechanics and inhale:exhale ratio.



Relaxing breathing

Slow your breath

The lungs contain slow and fast stretch receptors. When you breathe slowly, the slow stretch receptors pick up this movement and send feedback to the nervous system that you are safe. After all, when you aren’t under threat you don’t need a fast supply of oxygen to fight or run! So the lesson here is simple: slow down your breathing until there is a gentle, gradual stream of breath entering and exiting your body.

This may seem overly simple, but so often we’re encouraged to take BIG breaths to calm down, an instruction that can make us suck in breath quickly.

Calming breathing

Breath Downwards

Another confused instruction is often to take a big breath up into your chest or head. Think of the hand gesture most people make when talking about taking a breath in: it’s generally and upward lift of the hands. When you’re looking for a calming response, this upward lift is counterproductive. When we breathe up into the chest, we’re using muscles around the neck and shoulders. Yes, these are technically breathing muscles, but they’re only meant to be used when metabolic demand is high, for instance when exercising. So when these muscles are being used, feedback to the nervous system says that you need to continue pumping out stress hormones to meet the demand. What we want is called diaphragmatic breathing.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle and connective tissue that separates our chest cavity from our abdominal cavity. When functioning properly, the diaphragm pushes down on our guts on an inhale, making space of the lungs to expand downwards and draw breath in. Breathing downwards with the diaphragm and wide through the lower ribs helps elicit the relaxation response.
Brethwork for stress

Lengthen the exhale

Lastly, we can use this simple principle as a breathing hack: inhales are more energising, while exhales are more calming. This is because our breathing pattern works alongside our heart rate variability to keep our nervous system agile. Every time we take an inhale, the heart rate increases slightly; every time we exhale, the heart rate decreases. This oscillation between states means we’re ready to to respond appropriately to our moment-to-moment environment.
When we’re chronically stressed or experiencing anxiety, we tend to emphasise inhaling. It’s as if we’re constantly bracing to face that imagined threat! We can voluntarily reverse this pattern by taking gentle inhales and then lengthening the exhales, right to the end of the breath. A helpful way to do this is pursing the lips as if you’re blowing out through a straw. This slows down the passage of air so it takes longer to get to the end of the exhale. Making a sound can also be calming as it creates a bit of vibration and something to focus on.
It can be helpful to have awareness of the science behind why this calming breath works, but you only need to remember the simple takeaways:
  1. When you feel yourself getting stressed or anxious, still your body and notice the way you’re breathing
  2. Intentionally slow down the breath, maybe repeating the mantra “slow” on the inhale, and “down” on the exhale
  3. Take your inhales down into the belly, keeping your shoulders and chest heavy and relaxed
  4. Emphasise your exhales by making them longer than the inhales, and perhaps pursing the lips or making a “shhh” sound through your teeth
  5. Effects can be felt right away, but for deeper effects and long-term stress prevention, continue these techniques for 10-20 minutes on a regular basis
Eleanor is a somatic coach with the mission to help people live in a state of flow. She entered the field in response to her own issues with anxiety and eating disorders, and continues to study and explore diverse healing modalities. Eleanor’s background is in yoga, holistic lifestyle coaching, hypnosis, remedial therapy and personal training.
She delivers one-to-one coaching, classes, workshops and courses on movement, meditation and breathwork for self-development, which you can learn about at
Follow her Instagram @eleanorforder!

Eleanor Forder

Somatic Coach

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