Even before the novel coronavirus, stress was at an all-time high. Then the pandemic hit, and the average stress level of Americans jumped from 4.1 to 5.1 (out of 10), according to surveys conducted in May and June 2020 by the American Psychological Association.
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"Many Americans are balancing the demands of daily life, like work, school, family and finances, as well as larger social issues like poverty and racism," explains Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Merrick, New York. "Technology has also made it so that we feel like we must always be accessible to others, which can make it challenging to 'shut off' after a long workday."
One of the most effective tools for managing this stress is breathing exercises, a relaxation technique to calm that fight-or-flight mode our body sets into. Various research has shown many benefits of breathing exercises, such as a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate, according to a December2017 review in the journal Breathe.
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The best part is that breathing techniques require no prescription, no over-the-counter purchases, no formal training — all you need is a few minutes each day.
"You can benefit from incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine to help cope with stress, anxiety, depression and other negative emotions, to feel more energized and experience an overall greater sense of wellbeing," Guarnotta says. "You can also turn to breathing exercises throughout your day if you experience a stressful event."
While any form of slow and steady breathing can help ease your mind and settle your nerves, you may find certain breathing techniques more useful than others. Here are six types of breathing exercises that experts recommend to help you manage your stress and help you feel grounded throughout your day.
1. Belly or Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is one of the more well-known types of breathing exercises. It's beneficial not only for dealing with stress, but it has also been shown to help people with chronic lung disease increase oxygen levels, Guarnotta says.
"It helps you focus on your breathing, which can allow other stressful thoughts to move to the background."
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
- "Close your eyes to bring your awareness inward and begin to notice the rise and fall of your breath as it is right here, right now without trying to change anything," says Jodie Skillicorn, DO, a holistic psychiatrist in Stow, Ohio. "Just be curious and notice where you are most aware of the breath (your nose, the chest or the belly)."
- Place both hands gently over your belly and beginning to notice how it expands like a balloon as you breathe in and releases and contracts as you breathe out. "As best you can keep your focus on this movement and the sensations in the belly and allow your mind to wonder free of judgement," Dr. Skillicorn says. "Simply return your focus to the next breath in and the next breath out."
If you choose to be seated, Dr. Skillicorn recommends making sure that your back is relaxed but also elongated to allow freedom of movement for a full breath.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This type of breathing dates far back in history and is considered to be a yogic breath dubbed Nadi Shodhana Pranayama in Sanskrit. It has many health benefits, including lowering stress and improving cardiovascular function.
This kind of breathing lowered the majority of 90 healthy subjects' perceived stress scale (PSS), in a June 2013 study in the International Journal of Yoga. The same study also displayed that this type of breathing had the ability to lower the heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate of the subjects.
"Alternate nostril breathing affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system responsible for calming the body after the fight-or-flight response," Guarnotta explains. "It can therefore be helpful to practice alternate nostril breathing following a stressful event."
- Sit comfortably, placing your left hand in your lap. Guarnotta suggests placing your right thumb against your right nostril and your ring finger against your left nostril without applying pressure.
- Inhale and exhale deeply. "At the end of your exhale, close off your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through only your left nostril," Guarnotta says. "Next, release your thumb, close off your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril."
- Continue this pattern, inhaling and exhaling through alternate nostrils.
3. 4-7-8 Breathing
This type of breathing was based on the ancient yogic technique, which went by the Sanskrit name Pranayama. It is like alternate nostril breathing in the sense that it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps promote calm and relaxation, Guarnotta explains. "It also increases oxygen in the lungs and can help you fall asleep if you suffer from insomnia."
- Start by inhaling and exhaling completely.
- When you've got a good rhythm going, inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of seven and exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.
- Continue for at least five more breaths. As you practice longer, you may increase the number of breaths.
“At first, you may find it very difficult to hold your breath for seven and exhale for eight,” Guarnotta says. “If this is the case, you can decrease the time you inhale, hold and exhale, but just be sure to keep a similar ratio (for example, you might inhale for two, hold for three and exhale for four).” Over time, you can work your way up to 4-7-8 breathing.
4. Square or Box Breathing
Also known as "resetting your breath," this deep breathing technique is simple, but powerful. Like other breathing exercises, it promotes relaxation by focusing your attention on your breath, rather than stressful thoughts, which can help you feel more relaxed and focused, Guarnotta says.
It's relatively simple and offers a way to visualize your breath, making it an excellent technique to do with children, Guarnotta notes.
- Start in a sitting position with good posture.
- Notice your breath and start counting your inhalation and exhalation. "Forcing yourself to inhale or exhale too deeply may actually increase tension rather than reduce it," Dr. Skillicorn warns. "Once you have determined the count of your own breath you will create a box with your breath — i.e. if your inhalation and exhalation are two counts each, you will breathe in for a count of two, hold your breath for a count of two, breathe out for a count of two and pause at the bottom of the exhalation for a count of two."
- Repeat this for five to 10 rounds or until you start noticing your breath becoming fuller. At this point, extend the breaths to a count of three, breathing in for a count of three, holding for three, exhaling for three and pausing for three.
5. Left Nostril Breathing
If you are feeling particularly anxious and stressed, Dr. Skillicorn recommends trying a variation of alternate nostril breathing known as left nostril breathing.
Left nostril breathing "is helpful for slowing down the left, literal, logical side of the brain that often gets caught up in racing, repetitive thoughts, while activating the right intuitive and creative side of the brain, which is less prone to worry," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"After a few rounds of the left nostril breathing," she adds, "it is best to balance the brain and nervous system with a few rounds of the alternate nostril breathing."
- Begin by sitting in an upright position and focusing closely on your breath.
- Block off your right nostril with your right thumb and breathe in through your left nostril. "Pause at the top of the breath by blocking off both nostrils with the thumb and ring finger and release the thumb and breathe out through the right nostril," says Dr. Skillicorn.
- Repeat by once again slowly breathing in through the left nostril and out through the right.
6. Coherent Breathing
This type of breathing isn't too dissimilar from box breathing. The main difference is that you will slowly, gradually and intentionally expand your inhalations and exhalations to the ideal coherent breathing rate of five breaths in and five breaths out in order to balance the nervous system making it more flexible and adaptable, Dr. Skillicorn explains.
- Start sitting tall and breathe in and out for a few breaths.
- "Begin breathing in for a count of two and out for a count of two, repeating for two breaths and then shifting to a count of three, breathing in for a count of three and out for three," Dr. Skillicorn says.
- Repeat for three breaths, she says. "If you notice tension arising from length of breath continue counting for three until you feel more ease," Dr. Skillicorn advises.
- When you're ready, start counting to four breaths — inhaling and exhaling — and then on to five.
If you feel tension, Dr. Skillicorn suggests staying at a four-breath count or easing back down to the three count until it becomes more fluid.
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Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
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- American Psychological Association: "Stress in America 2020: Stress in the Time of COVID-19, Volume Two"
- Breathe: "The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing in the Healthy Human"
- International Journal of Yoga: "Effect of Fast and Slow Pranayama on Perceived Stress and Cardiovascular Parameters in Young Health-care Students"