Environment, Sleep, Stress

3 Breathing Strategies for Reducing Stress

October 27, 2017, Author: Boomer Anderson

Breathing is automatic. However, most are poor breathers. You are not lost, right? Most of us do not have asthma. Most of us do not have emphysema. By reading this, you are alive.

The vast majority of the population does not breathe through their diaphragm. Shallow breathing, or breathing into the chest, is a way of life.

In this article, we discuss:

  • Breath anatomy
  • Where we went wrong
  • The benefits of good breathing
  • Three breathing strategies for stress reduction

By the end, you will be breathing like a champion.

The Anatomy of Breathing

There are two phases in breathing: inhalation and exhalation.

During inhalation, the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles contract. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle below your lungs. Your external intercostal muscles are part of your ribs and help your chest rise as you breathe. During an inhalation, your diaphragm expands downward. This increases the shape of your thoracic cavity. The external intercostal muscles bring your ribs upward. This gives you that puffed out chest feeling. This is automatic.

Your body controls the breath through respiratory centers in the brainstem. This is the medulla. The medulla is at the base of your brainstem. It controls tells the spinal cord to keep breathing. The pons, which is very near the medulla, smooths the respiration pattern.

Remember, this is all automatic and involuntary.

Breathing Fire
Breath of Fire is a common yoga technique to increase energy


When Did You Start Breathing Wrong?

Watch a child.

The child breathes in and their stomach expands. When they breathe out, their stomach contracts. This is all efficient.

Somewhere along the line, you strayed. For some, this occurred as a result of stress. For some, ego got in the way. Puberty led to impressing the desired sex with that six-pack and big chest. You decided to breathe shallow, into your chest, and expand the chest out as far as possible.

While AC Slater in “Saved by the Bell” would be proud, this state is associated with very shallow breathing. Over time, you added work stress, travel, home stress, and other issues associated with a high performing profession. The breath became more shallow. You increased sympathetic nervous system activity with the shallow breath.

The autonomic nervous system has two main components: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” mechanism. The parasympathetic nervous system is the rest and relaxation mechanism.

Shallow breathing is often one of the results of anxiety. Panic attacks can be a result of shallow breathing. It is a circular reference.

Shallow breathing results in the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It is an evolutionary adaptation to keep you safe from harm. Your heart rate increases. You breathe faster to get more oxygen into the system. In reality, the opposite happens. You increase carbon dioxide. This causes you to breathe faster. The end result is a panic attack.

Frequent shallow breathing results in:

  • Chest pains
  • Lightheadedness
  • Weakness
  • Tingling feelings

Shallow breathing is associated with almost all symptoms of anxiety.

In the past, your ancestors fought lions. The chase ensued and ended.

Today, work chases you. News headlines chase you. Environmental stressors chase you. Unlike the lions, the work does not stop. Email stimulates you well into the evening. You may even wake in the middle of the night to check your email (don’t do that, by the way). The result is an overactive sympathetic nervous system.

The Dangers of an Overactive Sympathetic Nervous System

An overactive sympathetic nervous system leads to many health issues. Signs of an overactive sympathetic nervous system include:

  • Anxiety
  • Poor digestion
  • Shallow breathing (as “stressed” above)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle Tension
  • Poor sleep
  • Relentless

Prolonged over activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to disease states. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Kidney disease
  • End-stage renal disease
  • Hypertension

and many others. These are all reasons to avoid persistent sympathetic nervous system activity. But how do you do this?

What are the Benefits of Breathing Well?

Diaphragmatic breathing creates relaxation, stress management, and control of different physiological states. It improves organ function and helps you focus.

As a high performing professional, you live with an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This imbalance results in many issues ranging from disease to anxiety (discussed above in detail).

Particular breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This assists in balancing the autonomic nervous system. In a 2004 study by Pal et al, breath work decreases in sympathetic nervous activity. It improves cardiovascular functions, decreases of stress, and betters physical and mental health. According to the Mayo Clinic, yogic breathing helps balance the autonomic nervous system.

A good breath creates a more efficient use of oxygen in your body and decreased oxygen demand.

Knowing this, why doesn’t every health professional focus on breathing?

What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

The diaphragm is the major muscle associated with breathing. As mentioned before, it is a large dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs.

Diaphragmatic breathing involves contracting the diaphragm. It expands the belly as you inhale.

How Do You Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing?

First, lay on a flat surface. A bed or a floor will do.

Put one hand on your chest. Put the other hand on your belly.

If you are getting started, you should put a large book on your belly. A very large book, 700 pages or more. Anything by Tim Ferriss.

You want to feel see the impact of breathing into your belly.

Next, inhale slow, through your nose, and focus on expanding that stomach. Try not to move your chest. The hand or book on your stomach moves higher and higher.

As you exhale, the stomach muscles should fall inward through your pursed lips. Again, your upper chest must remain as still as possible.

The below video will show diaphragmatic breathing in detail.

This slows your breathing rate. Diaphragmatic breath maximizes oxygen and uses less effort or energy to breathe.

The diaphragm, like so many other muscles that we have, it needs a workout. Aim to practice diaphragmatic breathing a few times a day for five minutes or more. Over time, this breathing will become natural. It will replace your current breathing practice. You will notice states of reduced anxiety. You will notice increased awareness and focus. You will feel better. Who doesn’t want that?

Breathing Techniques for Reducing Stress and Increasing Focus

4-7-8 Breathing for Relaxation

This is an excellent exercise to do before bed or anytime you need to relax. 4-7-8 serves as a quick drug for the nervous system. Unlike other drugs, there are no side effects. It requires no equipment.

4-7-8 is ideal for unwinding at the end of the day, starting an evening routine, or preventing yourself from blowing up at the analyst on the trading floor.

For this exercise, you will inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. You can do it seated or laying down.

  • Start by completely exhaling through your mouth
  • Inhale quietly (using diaphragmatic breathing) for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds
  • Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight seconds.
  • Repeat at least two more times.

The first time you do this, it may be tricky. You may not be able to hold for seven seconds or exhale for eight seconds. If you adjust the timing, focus on keeping the ratio (in, hold, exhale) the same. The exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation.

Once you master diaphragmatic breathing, it will get easier.

At first, start with three to four breaths (one breath equals one full 4-7-8 set) before bed or when you feel stressed. Over time, you can increase this to eight breaths.

Do you feel lightheaded? It is okay and normal!

This is a useful tool to use whenever you experience elevated levels of stress or tension.

Box Breathing for Focus and Relaxation

Do you need to write a blog post, research macroeconomic trends, or read an offering document?

Box breathing, for four-square breathing, is a quick way to focus your mind on a task at hand. Notice, the word easy is absent here. Box breathing is difficult at first, but over time is a great tool in your breathing war chest.

  • Sit straight. Put your feet flat on the floor and hands in your lap.
  • (Ideal) Close your eyes. (Backup) Try to find a space where you remain uninterrupted for a few minutes
  • Breathe in for four seconds through the nose using diaphragmatic breathing technique.
  • Hold your breath for four seconds
  • Exhale through your mouth for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for four seconds
  • Repeat two to four times.

This last step, holding your breath on the exhale, is very difficult.

It requires some practice. You may get dizzy but stick with it. Box breathing is a quick way to increase focus on the task at hand.

Apnea Breathing
Apnea Breathing is used to increase breath hold times in free divers.

Yoga Breathing for Relaxation or Resetting in a Stressful Situation

Yoga breathing is also known as alternate nostril breathing.

This breath work requires action which will help you focus and recenter. Stressed, issues falling asleep, or want to see your heart rate variability increase when taking a reading? This breathing technique is for you.

  • Sit in a chair
  • Using your left thumb, cover your left nostril
  • Breath in through your nose and into your belly
  • Remove the cover on your left nostril and cover your right nostril with your right thumb
  • Exhale through your left nostril
  • Start the next set by breathing in through your left nostril

You can see the focus required to perform this exercise. It is hard to think of much else when you need to remember which nostril is next.


Stress and sleep are two of the seven components of the systems approach to health. Breathwork is a simple, cost-effective (ie costs nothing) strategy for building stress resiliency and improving sleep.

Implementation requires effort.

Not a lot of effort, but some. Start with 5 to 10-minutes twice a day. One of these times should be before bed. Go to a quiet room where you will not be interrupted for a few minutes. Play some music selected to help you relax (no candles needed) and just breathe.

As a child, you breathed well.

As a busy professional, you take the weight of the world on your shoulders. News headlines, emails, and intense exercise lead to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. A few minutes a day will bring you back to an optimal state, leading to better focus and increased energy.

You will handle pressure better; your sleep quality will improve; you will have more energy.

Do you wish to learn more about how you can increase focus, energy, and build stress resiliency? Schedule a free 30-minute discovery call with one of our health strategists today.

Free PDF! 6 Steps to Unbound Focus through BDNF

Can I just say, "I love you." The PDF and your path to superhuman focus is on the way.


Carney, Scott. “What Doesn’t Kill Us.” Foxtopus, Inc. January 2017.

Fisher, James et al. “Central Sympathetic Overactivity: Maladies and Mechanisms.” Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical. June 2009.

Kravitz, Len and Novotny, Sarah. “The Science of Breathing.” The University of New Mexico.

Mayo Clinic. “Diaphragmatic breathing.” 2017.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “What Happens When You Breathe.” National Institute of Health. 2017.

Pal, G.K. Velkumary, S. and Madanmohan. Effect of the short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers. Indian Journal of Medical Research. 2004.

Van Der Meulen, Kasper. “Mindlift: Mental Fitness for the Modern Mind.” Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press. September 2016.

Vranich, Belisa. “Breathe: The Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health.” Macmillan Audio. December 2016

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