Wellness Strategy: Reduce Stress with Deep Breathing

Last updated on 9/5/2020

This article is part of the Wellness Strategies Series

Problem: You Feel Stressed
Strategy: Practice Equal Breathing

During times of stress, heart rate is often elevated. Equal Breathing, a technique borrowed from Pranayama Yoga, counters this affect by deliberately slowing your breath and heart rate.

Method

Technique 1: Equal Breathing (also known as Sama Vritti Breathing)

  1. Inhale to a count of 4 seconds.
  2. Exhale to a count of 4 seconds.
  3. Repeat this pattern in succession, gradually increasing the number of seconds to 5, 6, 8, and 10.

Technique 2: Equal Breathing With a Hold (The One Minute Breath)

  1. Inhale to a count of 5 seconds
  2. Hold the breath for a count of 5 seconds
  3. Exhale to a count of 5 seconds
  4. Repeat this pattern in succession, gradually increasing the number of seconds to 8, 10, 12, 15, up to 20. With time and practice, this exercise gradually leads up to the One Minute Breath, a practice where you inhale, hold, and exhale for 20 seconds each, so that one breath takes 60 seconds.

For both techniques, you can maximize the experience by focusing on the sensations of deep breathing. While inhaling, feel the air as it fills your upper chest, mid-chest, and belly. As you exhale, feel the air leave you completely. Keep a steady and even pace as you concentrate on the silent counting of your inhales and exhales.

For technique #2, it is important not to strain beyond your capacity. These techniques are designed to REDUCE stress, not increase it. Therefore, you should progress at an easy pace and practice mindful acceptance of your personal limitations. If a count of 10 appears to be your limit, then it is perfectly fine to stay at 10, and you may take regular breaths in between the inhale-hold-exhale cycles if needed.

Why It Works

Clinical research indicates that breathing exercises can reduce tension and relieve stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, the division of the autonomic nervous system that functions to slow the heart rate and decrease resting blood pressure after periods of arousal/stress. In other words, breathing exercises elicit a relaxation response, which decreases the level of autonomic arousal.

Demonstration

Video 1: Johns Hopkins Medicine demonstrates basic deep breathing followed by even breathing.


Video 2: Dana Opalinsky of Bloom Yoga provides a more in-depth demonstration of the technique on the yoga mat. She then explains how she uses it during the day or before sleep:

References:
Jerathemail, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses, 67(3), 566-2006. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042

Mourya, M., Mahajan, A. S., Singh, N. P., & Jain, A. K. (2009). Effect of slow- and fast-breathing exercises on autonomic functions in patients with essential hypertension. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(7), 711-717. doi: 10.1089=acm.2008.0609

*Image: Aleksandr Davydov