My 4 Favorite Breathing Exercises to Combat Stress

As a cardiothoracic intensive care nurse, I am super aware of how important breathing is to life.

Hello, Captain Obvious.

But, how often do you catch yourself holding your breath when you’re in pain or under stress? Why is it that our response to discomfort is to stop doing the very thing that keeps  our cells going? When my oldest daughter hurts herself, she holds her breath for what feels like an eternity.

Controlled breathing has been shown to cause a parasympathetic response. This means that your brain calms down, slow your heart rate and digestion, and tells your adrenals to adjust their production of cortisol, the stress hormone. This improves anxiety, depression, and other stress-related issues (1). If you’ve ever given birth, you understand this process of bringing awareness to breathing is essential in getting through contractions.


Dan Brule states that “breath is the link between mind and body.” It has the ability to bring us into the present moment, shifting our awareness back into ourselves. By doing so, it not only slows down our body and calms our minds, but it allows us to pause. Through this pause, we can slow down and see things a bit more clearly.

Imagine, for a moment, the last argument you had with someone. You may have said something defensive or didn’t mean. You may have completely shut down and didn’t say exactly what you needed to say. If you could have just pressed a pause button, maybe you could have said something that was kinder, more empathetic, or truer to yourself.

Breathing is hitting the pause button on life, allowing you to take an inventory of the present. By bringing awareness to a process normally so automatic and taken for granted, we allow our bodies to catch up.

If you’re new to paying attention to your breath, I have good news for you. It’s not difficult. You’ve been breathing since your birth day, after all! And it doesn’t take a lot of time. I did this myself in an elevator ride yesterday to calm my nerves. But, in case you don’t have a clue where to start, I have four breathing techniques for you to try out.

  1. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8


2. Box breathing


3. Alternate nostril breathing


4. Belly breathing (Elmo has some great advice for you, too)


I hope that you’ll take one of these techniques with you the next time you need a moment to get back to center.


In health,


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