When it comes to managing stress and difficult emotions, the breath can be a life-changing solution. It’s freely available and you can use it anytime, anywhere. Here are 5 mindful breathing techniques designed to be both accessible and effective in real life.
What is mindful breathing?
Mindful breathing is the practice of purposefully paying attention to your breath either by observing its natural ebbs and flows without judgment or by intentionally breathing in a way that promotes relaxation.
Breathing can be voluntary or involuntary. Like your heartbeat, breathing is an essential function that happens automatically. You don’t need to focus on your breath in order to survive.
But you can also focus on breathing in a way that helps you thrive. You can make it deeper or more shallow, faster or slower. You can hold your breath. And you can breathe through your mouth or your nose. You can ignore your breath or practice conscious breathing by attending to it in a specific way. So you have many choices when it comes to breathing, and these choices can quickly shift the way you feel.
Mindful breathing means taking advantage of these choices, one breath at a time. The benefits of mindful breathing come from shifting our focus and intention to this otherwise automatic function for as little as one minute at a time. And these practices are proven ways to take care of your mental health.
5 mindful breathing exercises
Mindful breathing exercises have been around for centuries, first recorded in 430 AD. Although Western psychologists have studied the benefits of mindful breathing, showing measurable impacts, they didn’t invent it.
The 5 mindful breathing techniques below can be used by anyone for calming benefits. If you feel overwhelmed by longer periods of mindfulness, start by setting a timer for a minute. Everything counts and it’s all about finding what works best for you.
If you feel dizzy, experience any adverse effects, or find you need to strain to make the count, take a break or try a new technique.
1. Box breathing
This technique has been popularized by Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL commander. It works by triggering the body’s relaxation response.
It’s an effective way to decrease stress and anxiety when you most need calmness—and it’s most effective if you use it before stress and anxiety reach peak levels.
How to do it:
- Begin in a comfortable seated position, with your spine upright, but not stiff.
- Inhale for a slow count of 4. Hold your breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of 4. And then hold your breath again for a slow count of 4.
- Repeat with this 4 (inhale) x 4 (hold) x 4 (exhale) x 4 (hold) count.
2. Awareness of breath
This breathing meditation can calm racing or ruminating thoughts by providing a readily available and soothing object of focus.
How to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable, upright position. If it’s comfortable for you, close your eyes, otherwise keep a soft gaze.
- Place your attention on your breath, following its rise and fall. It may help to place a hand on your belly or your chest so you can feel the movement.
- If your mind wanders, as the mind tends to do, not to worry. Simply notice that it wandered and bring your attention back to your breath.
3. Breath counting
Breath counting is associated with better mood, less attachment, and reduced mind wandering.
How to do it:
- Find a comfortable position for your body that is relaxed but also engaged.
- Focus on your breath. After your first inhale and exhale, count 1.
- Again inhale and exhale and count 2. Repeat until you reach a count of 9, then start over at 1. If you lose track, just start over at 1.
4. Slow breathing
There are many ways to practice slow breathing, including taking fewer than 10 breaths per minute or lengthening your in-breath or out-breath for a count of 6.
How to do it:
- Inhale through your nose as you slowly lift your arms above your head for a count of 3-6.
- Exhale through your nose as you slowly bring your arms down to your sides for a count of 4-6.
- Repeat this as many times as feels helpful.
5. Belly breathing
We tend to take shallow breaths when stressed. Intentionally breathing deeply can relax both your body and mind.
How to do it:
- Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Sense into where your breath rises and falls.
- If you are taking more shallow breaths, focus on feeling your chest expand. If you are breathing deeply, feel the expansion in your belly.
- Breathe slowly through your nostrils, trying to fill your belly with breath. If it’s helpful, imagine yourself breathing in nourishment and exhaling stress.
Why breathing exercises help with anxiety
In their book on treating the human stress response, Drs Everly and Lating write, “Controlled respiration is one of the oldest and certainly the single, most efficient acute intervention for the mitigation and treatment of excessive stress.”
In a state of anxiety, you experience increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Even though there is no real, immediate danger, you feel a sense of danger, and as a result, you experience a fight or flight response. Your pulse quickens, your breath becomes more shallow, and your muscles tense.
fMRI studies also show an increase in activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear. In addition to impacting thoughts and feelings, anxiety is a full-body experience.
But breathing also impacts both our body and mind. Plus, the way we breathe is strongly tied to our emotional state. Slow, deep breathing is associated with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s relaxation response)—and mindfulness is shown to reduce activity in the amygdala.
Mindful breathing empowers you
Beyond the benefits for anxiety, mindful breathing can help you develop skills that all of us can use—strengthening focus, concentration, and emotional regulation.
We live in a world where anxiety, overwhelm, exhaustion, and burnout aren’t just present— they’re common. But we have the power to influence our experience. And the breath is one powerful tool to take control of our internal circumstances in a world where so much is beyond our control.
- Mindful breathing techniques can calm the anxiety and release tension quickly.
- Your breath is one of the most efficient tools for managing anxiety and stress in the moment.
- Mindful breathing includes passive techniques like observing the breath and active techniques like shifting the pattern of your breathing.
- Everly & Lating (2013). A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response. Springer, New York, NY: USA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5538-7_11
- Jerath et al. (2015). Self-Regulation of Breathing as a Primary Treatment for Anxiety. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8
- Levinson et al. (2014). A mind you can count on: validating breath counting as a behavioral measure of mindfulness. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01202
- Zaccaro et al. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing.https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353