Breathing for stress management

It’s a FACT that life sure can get stressful sometimes with all the responsibilities we have in our lives. We all deal with stress at different proportions throughout our lives and can leave us feeling like, “How do we get away from all of this stress?”. As nice as it would be to take a vacation to Hawaii or the Bahamas every other week, that is just not possible or practical almost all of the time *unfortunately*. However, breathing for about 5 minutes a day can be one way to help with reduction of stress levels on a daily basis by activating our parasympathetic nervous system.  

same Vicki, same
What is your parasympathetic nervous system?  

You have two branches of your autonomic nervous system, your parasympathetic system and your sympathetic system. These systems create bodily responses that are activated based on sensory input from our environment resulting in a bodily response to the stimuli.  

Your sympathetic system is known as your “fight or flight response” and is responsible for preparing the body for stressful situations. Activation of your sympathetic nervous system can result in things such as increased heart rate, enlarging pupils to improve vision, slowing down digestion, redirection of blood to your muscles through restricting blood flow of certain areas, and sweating.  

Your parasympathetic system is responsible for the “rest and digest response”. Activation of this system can result in a decrease in heart rate, increased salivary secretion, stimulation of intestinal motility for adsorption of nutrients, and pupillary contraction.  

Both systems play important roles in the functions of our body. The sympathetic system, however, gets a bad rap sometimes because while it helps us when we are exercising or reacting to temporary stress it can often be over activated and cannot always discern situations where it is called for and situations where it is not. Because it isn't designed to be on and stimulated by life stressors constantly, over activity of the sympathetic system can be SO taxing to your body.  But, as I mentioned, there is a way to increase activation of your parasympathetic response through BREATHING.  

Well how does that work?, you might ask.  
  1. Start with the basics  
  1. Breathe in gently through the nose  
  1. Breathe out gently though the mouth  

Work on keeping the neck relaxed when performing an inhale  

Think about when you breathe in working to expand your rib cage in the front, back and sides and letting the breath fill the belly with air  

If you are exhaling twice as long as your inhale you are already activating your parasympathetic nervous system! Example: inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.  

4-7-8 Breathing

To perform:  

  1. Gently inhale through the nose counting to 4
  1. Hold your breath for a count of 7
  1. Part the lips and gently exhale for a count of 8

Repeat steps 1-3 for 6 repetitions  

Take a minute of normal breathing  

And repeat the entire breathing pattern again for 6 repetitions for a total of 3 total cycles  

5-5-5-5 Box Breathing

To perform:  

  1. Gently inhale through the nose mentally counting to 5
  1. Hold the inhale for 5 counts  
  1. Part the lips and gently breathe out of the mouth for 5 counts  
  1. Hold the exhale for 5 counts  

Repeat steps 1-4 for 5 minutes  

Controlled alternate nasal breathing

To perform:  

  1. Exhale completely then using your right thumb close your right nostril  
  1. Inhale through the left nostril and then close your left nostril with your ring finger
  1. Remove your thumb to exhale from your right nostril  
  1. Exhale from the right nostril and then seal it with your thumb again  
  1. Open your left nostril and exhale through the left nostril  

Repeat steps 1-5 for 5 minutes  

Cyclic Sighing (physiological sigh)

To perform:  

  1. Inhale through your nose  
  1. Take a second inhale through your nose (this one is usually shorter)
  1. Exhale through your mouth  

Repeat steps 1-3 for 2-4 times

Try each of these and take note of how you feel to determine the breathing technique for you. What works for you one day may not be the better technique the next, so keep playing with these and practicing downregulating that sympathetic nervous system babe.


Balban MY, Neri E, Kogon MM, et al. Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Reports Medicine. 2023;4(1):100895. doi:10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100895 

Hopper SI, Murray SL, Ferrara LR, Singleton JK. Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: A quantitative systematic review. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports. 2019;17(9):1855-1876. doi:10.11124/jbisrir-2017-003848 

Jerath R, Edry JW, Barnes VA, Jerath V. Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses. 2006;67(3):566-571. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042 

Komori T. The relaxation effect of prolonged expiratory breathing. Mental Illness. 2018;10(1):6-7. doi:10.1108/mi.2018.7669 

McCorry LK. Physiology of the autonomic nervous system. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2007;71(4):78. doi:10.5688/aj710478 

Sinha AN. Assessment of the effects of pranayama/alternate nostril breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system in young adults. JOURNAL OF CLINICAL AND DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH. Published online 2013. doi:10.7860/jcdr/2013/4750.2948 

Vierra J, Boonla O, Prasertsri P. Effects of sleep deprivation and 4‐7‐8 breathing control on heart rate variability, blood pressure, blood glucose, and endothelial function in Healthy Young Adults. Physiological Reports. 2022;10(13). doi:10.14814/phy2.15389 

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