CALS Wellness Committee tip: Manage stress with breathing techniques

We breathe all the time. Indeed, breathing comes so naturally to us that it’s easy to take for granted the powerful role that intentional breathing techniques can play in managing stress and fostering well-being. We all face stresses in our work and personal lives that are part of the human experience. The next time you are feeling stressed, check to see if your breathing is shallow. Shallow breathing amplifies the physiological sensation of stress.[1] 

Meditation is perhaps the most common practice of breathing that benefits mental and physical health. Many of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness have been documented and popularized by researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison. 

While meditation is a great practice for a variety of reasons, it’s often difficult to stop during a stressful time and find the time to meditate when you’re in need of immediate stress reduction. Sometimes what we need is a breathing technique that can be used in real-time when and where we need it most.

Fortunately, there are other breathing techniques that reduce stress quickly and can be done at almost any time with immediate, noticeable effects. One of the easiest is called the ‘physiological sigh.’ Intentional sighs are particularly effective for reducing tension for people who have higher anxiety levels to begin with.[2] Simply stated, the physiological sigh method consists of a breathing pattern consisting of two inhales through the nose followed by an extended exhale through the mouth. The first breath though the nose is almost to capacity, followed by one more quick nasal inhale that further pop open the air sacks in the lungs. This is followed by an extended exhale. Just one to three cycles of this breathing technique can make a noticeable difference in reducing your stress. It’s as simple as that, and it takes only a few seconds. 

When we are stressed, we breathe more shallowly and carbon dioxide builds up in our bloodstream, which can make us feel agitated and jittery. Physiologically, this breathing technique works by reinflating the sacks in our lungs and the longer exhale rapidly offloads excess carbon dioxide, providing an immediate sense of increased calm. Additionally, our heart rate declines and oxygen levels go up contributing to a greater sense of calmness. 

For an example of how the physiological sigh works and why, watch this short video narrated by Andrew Huberman, an associate professor in the department of neurobiology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. 

Next time you’re feeling stressed, try it out. The science provides some explanation of why it works but the best test is of whether it works is to try the technique yourself. It’s quick and easy and may help you reduce your stress when and where you need it most. 

[1] Conrad, A., Müller, A., Doberenz, S. et al. (2007). Psychophysiological effects of breathing Instructions for stress management. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 32, 89–98.

[2] Vlemincx, E., Vam Diest, I., &  Van den Bergh, O. (2016).  A sigh of relief or a sigh to relieve: The psychological and physiological relief effect of deep breaths. Physiology and Behavior, 165, 127-135.