Breathing for Wellness: Why Breath Matters, and 8 Ways to Breathe Out Stress

Monday January 18, 2021

When we are anxious or angry, we tense up and hold our breath, or breathe fast and shallow, further increasing stress. Slow, deep breathing almost instantly diffuses tension, helping us feel calm, clear-headed and in control. Abby White explores why our bodies react this way, and how we can use our breath to restore calm fast.

A young girl blows bubbles with a buble wand.

Take a Deep Breath!

The sight in my one remaining eye is very limited, but the needle was so close, I could see its length and point with alarming clarity.  My body tensed up and my heart began to pound. I sucked in increasingly rapid, shallow breaths of air until I realized I was holding my breath completely.  As the needle approached, I pushed my head further into the pillow.  Every fibre of my being screamed the need to run from this situation.

I was about to have a local anaesthetic injection in my eyelid before electrolysis treatment to manage renegade eyelashes. Changes to the structure and growth of my eye socket after radiotherapy in infancy caused some of my eyelashes to grow inwards. Frequent scratches to the front of my eye have caused many painful infections and risked my remaining sight.

The injection was very challenging, but also very necessary.

I’d been here before though. And this time, I had a secret weapon to out-shine the needle – my own breath.

Realizing I wasn’t ready for the procedure, I asked the ophthalmologist to stop and give me a moment. I took one deep breath in, deliberately tensed up all my muscles, then relaxed them and slowly released my breath.  I took three slow deep breaths, reminding myself that I knew from previous experience the injection pain would be momentary.  Then I signalled to the team that I was ready.

The injection was quickly administered, and the treatment progressed smoothly.  I continued to focus on my breath, rather than my circling fear of the needles and the disquieting pressure around my eye.

I am so thankful the doctor listened to me and gave me a minute of silence to regain calm.  My mind and body were hurtling up a steep slope on the rollercoaster of traumatic stress, but simple focus on my breath enabled me to apply the brakes and change the course of that journey within just one minute.

Controlling our breath is one of the very best ways we can quickly dissolve stress and improve wellbeing.  Below, we explore how and why the body responds as it does to stress, why breath is such a powerful antidote, and a range of ways we can harness our breath to reduce stress.

A cream deconrated stone lays on a bed of grey stones. The word “Breathe” is written across the stone in flowing black script, accented with white dots. The portion of stone below the word is decorated with waves and water droplets in light, mid and dark blue, and mid green. They are all outlined in a series of tiny white dots.

What Happens When We Become Stressed?

Stressful situations can activate a biological response that result in physical symptoms of stress, such as the pounding heart, rapid breathing, and tense muscles I experienced during my injection.  These changes boost our strength and clarity of focus to act in a dangerous situation, or move away from it fast.

The “fight of flight” response was vital to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who needed to react instantly when threatened by dangers of the wilderness.  But this carefully calibrated response hasn’t evolved with the rapid changes in human life.  So our regular daily stress, and events that are not immediately life-threatening, repeatedly activate the stress response.

The response can be activated by

  • Routine events, such as losing your wallet or keys, traffic jams or a train running late, responsibilities of work and family life, a difficult conversation, or experiencing a painful medical procedure.
  • Major events, such as exams, changing or leaving school, changing jobs or becoming unemployed, moving house, witnessing an accident or injustice, receiving a diagnosis, or being bereaved.
  • Ongoing worries, such as food and shelter, personal safety, loneliness, a toxic relationship, finances, job security, state of health and navigating a serious medical condition.

This Fight or Flight response is triggered by the autonomic nervous system, part of the peripheral nervous system that regulates bodily processes we don’t directly control.  Things like heart rate and breathing rate, pupil size, blood pressure, body temperature, sweating and salivation, digestion and metabolism, urination and defecation, sexual urges and emotional responses.

The stress response and its antidote are regulated by two components of the Autonomic Nervous System that constantly respond to information received from our environment and body.  The sympathetic nervous system triggers the stress response, while the parasympathetic nervous system restrains it.

The sympathetic nervous system acts like a “play” button, rapidly activating and fine-tuning both body and mind for its fight or flight response.  This system controls functions like increasing heart rate, opening the airways to increase oxygen capacity, dilating the pupils and emptying the bladder.  The changes enabled our ancestors to respond fast to a life-threatening situation – sharper sight, more blood and oxygen supporting their muscles to increase their strength and speed.

Researchers aren’t quite sure why the bladder empties.  Possibly the body is removing all excess waste and weight that might slow the person’s fight or flight response.  When the body is operating under stress, the nervous system functions at higher sensitivity, so possibly the bladder’s maximum capacity is reduced.  It’s also possible that the bladder – a smooth muscle – tenses up like other muscles readying themselves for fight or flight, and that tension causes us to pee.  Children who are stressed may be more prone to bed-wetting due to activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system acts like an “off” button, slowly disengaging the fight or flight stress response to conserve resources, while soothing body and mind after the traumatic experience.  For example, heart rate and breathing decrease, helping to save energy and relax muscles; pupils contract to reduce visual stimulation; and the bladder returns to normal control, preventing accidental urination.

When we’re constantly stressed, whether by small individual events or significant ongoing worries, the sympathetic nervous system is continually turned on.  The body is not designed to operate constantly in this way, and the risks of repeat or long term stress are high.

Effects of chronic stress, such as high blood pressure and hormone imbalances, and stress-related coping behaviours like overeating, smoking, drinking, drug-taking and reduced physical activity, increase the risk of major health concerns.  Addictions and depression, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are some of the most common and serious consequences.  Chronic stress can even alter brain structures, and cause parts of the brain to shrink, affecting memory, emotions, executive functions, and other critical skills.

Being able to turn off our natural stress response is vital to protect our physical and mental health.

Breathe Slow to Turn Off the Stress Response

Taking control of our breathing is the most effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, relax mind and body, and diffuse stress fast.  Even in the most difficult, frightening, physically painful, and heart-breaking moments of our lives.  I stand in the middle of such a moment right now – yesterday I lost my most treasured friend, and my heart is utterly broken.  When events spiral beyond our control, and emotions threaten to consume us, a single breath holds great stabilizing and healing power.

The effects of slow, deep breathing are almost instant, helping us feel calm, more clear-headed and in control.  We effectively give our body and mind permission to stand down from alert mode and relax. Our troubles won’t magically disappear, but we are better able to cope with them and make good decisions, while protecting our physical and mental health.

Below are eight different ways you can use breathing to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, reducing the immediate and long-term negative impacts of stress on your mind and body.

1. Breathe Deep – It’s a form of mindful meditation

Many different breathing techniques can help calm both body and mind.  In the simplest form, take a deep breath in for three seconds, hold it for three seconds, and breathe out for three seconds.  Pay attention to how your body feels, notice tension dissolving, and your mind relaxing.

When you are comfortable with the rhythm, try to gradually lengthen your exhalation, continually paying attention to how your body and mind respond as you go. Return to a regular steady breath when you feel comfortably relaxed.

Practice this technique while calm, so you can identify what works best for you.  You will be more able to control your breath and feel more confident using this approach when you feel stress and tension rising within you.

Try the technique with this guided mindful breathing video. In less than 4 minutes you can create an oasis of calm with this video from Oxford University’s Oxford Mindfulness Centre. This simple breathing exercise opens up space to just be still and let go of all burdens for a while.

2. Get Some Fresh Air

The ambient temperature and flow of air around us has a significant impact on our wellbeing.  Feeling emotionally charged and tense in a hot, stuffy or crowded environment could trigger a panic attack or overflow of anger you may later regret.

Remove yourself from that situation as soon as possible once you recognize the risk. Step outside into the fresh air for a few minutes of breathing space. The change of space and air flow will help to release tension in your body, and calm your mind.

3. Add Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative or complementary medicine that uses the essential oils from plants to affect both physical and mental well-being.

Our sense of smell is powerful, Scent can evoke strong memories, conjure vivid imagination, and stir intense emotion.  Possibly this strong connection between scent and emotion arises because the area of the brain that manages sense of smell is adjacent to the areas that regulate emotions.

When we smell good things, we feel better. Bad odours draw up negative reactions, often bringing painful reminders of the past.

Combining aromatherapy with deep breathing is a profound stress-reliever.  Finding aromatherapy scents you enjoy will help to raise your overall mood, release tension, calm you down, and create a relaxing atmosphere.  Aromatherapy can be used throughout the day, but especially aids relaxation in the evening, right before going to bed.

You may find the following suggestions particularly helpful…

  • Lavender: Relieves stress and tension, aids peaceful sleep.
  • Rosemary: Stimulates, energizes, reduces muscle tension, aids memory.
  • Jasmine: Relieves tension and anxiety and revives the mind. Aids confidence.
  • Orange: Energizes and invigorates.
  • Peppermint: Boosts energy and concentration.
  • Eucalyptus: Boosts energy and sharpens the mind for complex tasks.
  • Grapefruit: Boosts energy, balances the mind, and reduces stress.
  • Lemon: Raises energy, clarity and calm.
  • Lime: Boosts mood and energy.
  • Basil: Aids concentration and memory.
  • Cinnamon: Aids memory and boosts cognitive function.
  • Ginger: Boosts energy.
  • Pine: Boost energy and focus.
  • Cedarwood: Boosts energy and focus.
  • Sage: Stimulates and aids concentration.

4. Practice Mindful Driving

Driving to work when you are tired and your mind is full…Navigating the school-run traffic with chatty passengers…Another commute to a much anticipated EUA… If you know that driving causes you to feel stressed and anxious, you can change your anticipation and experience by practicing mindful driving.  Follow all the steps below.

  • When you get into your car, take a few deep box breaths – breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 4, and hold for a count of 4. This is called “box breathing”.  Each breath and hold is the same duration, and you can imagine drawing four sides of a square as you breathe or hold your breath.
    • Turn your phone to silent. Do not turn on the radio or create other distractions while in the car. You may want to put on some calming music, if silence itself is too distracting. This can be particularly valuable if you have children in the car as it may help them relax.
    • As you begin to drive, make an extra effort to notice your surroundings.
    • If you get stuck in traffic or someone cuts you off, notice the feelings that arise (anger, frustration, anxiety, competitiveness), and simply identify them.
    • Use traffic stops or other necessary stops to practice a few deep, calming breaths.
    • When you arrive at your destination and turn off the engine, sit for a moment and take three deep box breaths as described in step #1. On the exhalation, really let go of any tension you’ve gained during the drive.

The following video is a great tutorial for both box breathing (ideal for controlled situations) and tactical breathing (ideal for active situations when stressors are unpredictable).

5. Practice Transition Breathing

How many times have you raced from one point to another and immediately started doing the activity you came to do?

This seems a diligent, efficient, engaged way to operate. But how much of you still lags behind, processing thoughts or feelings you carried in with you from the last task, the last conversation, a difficult drive from A to B?

Transition Breathing can be a valuable technique to help calm the mind, either in addition to Mindful Driving, or as an alternative practice if that is not practical.

Breathing helps to harness and quiet our thoughts. Allow yourself a mindful moment before you switch gears, so you can approach the next activity in a calmer and more centred way.

The body and mind accumulate a lot of stress on this retinoblastoma journey, whether we are parents, survivors or caring professionals. You may feel physically exhausted and mentally drained. Even on the best days, we are faced with small challenges, decisions, and aggravations that gradually deplete us.  It is common to carry that agitation around all day, then bring it home at the end of the day.

Create a mindful transition between each activity throughout the day, or from the demands of your day to the start of your evening. Using a simple visualization practice, pause for a mental vacation. By visualizing your perfect relaxation spot, you can put yourself in a calm, restful, and elevated state of mind that allows you to move on peacefully to your next responsibilities.  You can do this as you sit for a few minutes before opening your car door (never while driving), as you walk down the hall to your next meeting, waiting for the bus, anywhere that creates space between…

Here are two brief guided visualisations to help you take a mental vacation. Many longer guided meditations are available on youtube, or for purchase on Audible, iTunes and elsewhere.

2 Minutes

7 Minutes

Deep Breathing Activities for Kids

Bubbles, pinwheels, feathers, party blowers, and instruments (kazoo, harmonica, recorder) all promote deep breathing that helps the body relax.  When used during medical procedures, they can help reduce a child’s perception of pain, and help the procedure go by faster.

You can encourage your child to “blow the pain away”.  Have a contest to see who can blow the hardest or longest, or who can blow the biggest bubble.

Practice breathing and blowing together when your child is calm and playful, not anticipating or having a procedure.  Deep breathing is an excellent tool for children to manage stress and anxiety in everyday life.

The following three activities can be completed at the hospital, at home or at school. Few resources are needed and each one is cost effective to complete. They are suitable for both younger and older children, with some modification to make the activity easier or more challenging.  The first two activities are included in our July 2019 blog Mindfulness Tips for Retinoblastoma Families and Teachers, from Meagan Fuller. The third is taken from Activities for Isolating with Children.

6. Breathing Dragon

A colourful construction paper and toiket roll dragon, with tissue paper flames emerging from its mouth.

The breathing dragon helps children concentrate on their breathing.

The breathing dragon helps children concentrate on their breathing. When the child breathes out deeply through the toilet roll dragon head, the wind tunnel created will cause the “flames” to roar outwards from the dragon’s mouth.  Learn more about Dragon Breathing

List of supplies needed:

– Paper towel or toilet paper roll

– Construction paper to cover the roll, for the eyes and to make the fire dragon breath

– Tissue paper for the fire dragon breath

7. My Magic Breath

This book ‘My Magic Breath’ touches on calm feelings through mindfulness breathing.

After reading this story with your child and/or students, invite them to draw a picture of their own magic breath. This expressive art activity can help children convey the color and shape of what they are feeling.

What you will need:

– Piece of paper

– Coloring pencils and/or markers

My Magic Breath book cover. The title is in the top left corner. A child in the bottom left corner breathes out ribbons and swirls of dark and light colours, forming a funnel of colour that gradually fills the centre and upper right-hand quarter of the cover. The background is primarily white, graduating to blue in the top right corner.

My Magic Breath: finding calm through mindful breathing. Written by Nick Ortner, Alison Taylor. Pictures by Michelle Polizzi

8. Blow Your Own Painting

A very simple craft activity that encourages deep breathing – a valuable calming skill for children to learn.

You will need:

  1. Runny paint
  2. Any type of narrow tubing like a straw or IV tubing.
  3. Paper for drying
  4. To ensure children can competently “blow” rather than “suck” with the tubing before doing this activity with them. If they need help learning, ask them to make a long ‘P’ sound, or mime blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

How To:

  1. Put several blobs of different coloured paint on a sheet of paper.
  2. Place one end of the tubing close to the paper, and the other end in the mouth. Breathe in deep and blow out slowly down the straw to move the paint in different directions and random patterns as far as it will go.
  3. Turn the paper to create new and larger patterns.

About the Author

Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.

Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries.  After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.

Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.

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