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  • Writer's pictureDeb

De-stress with your breath

Updated: May 13, 2018

Have you been looking after everyone else’s needs and ignoring your own? Are your symptoms telling you to begin looking after yourself? The effect of mental stress and emotional pressure on the body can be huge.

If you have difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, feel depressed, anxiety, stress, panic disorders, phobias, IBS, (irritable bowel syndrome), fibromyalgia, fatigue, tense muscles, chronic pain, or asthma, you may also have breathing patterns which are negatively affecting you without you knowing it.

Breathing is exquisitely sensitive to stress…the secret is to learn a simple breathing technique which will help you recover wellbeing.


To begin, lie comfortably on your back with a pillow under your head and knees. Place one hand on your stomach, with the other hand relaxed by your side.

Gently close your mouth, lips together and keep your jaw loose.

Breathe in gently through your nose, feeling your tummy rise and expand 'like a balloon' as you breathe in, counting to 7. The breath should be unforced and silent. As you do this, enjoy bringing the breath in by remembering something pleasurable, or visualising a pleasant scene. Counting helps to distract from negative thoughts, too.

Breathe out lightly through your nose or mouth, counting to 11, without pushing, keeping your stomach relaxed.

Make sure you relax and pause at the end of each breath out.

When you breathe in, your upper chest should be relaxed and not moving. From time to time place your hand on your upper chest to check this. Remember to keep the breathing slow and unforced.

As you repeat this, be aware of any areas of tension in your body and concentrate on ‘letting go’, particularly around your jaw, neck, shoulders and hands. Practice this often, and try it sitting, standing and then walking. Be patient with yourself; it is worth practising for a while until it becomes natural to you.


Over-breathing is a normal, (temporary) reaction to emotional stress, or exercise. You might notice fast, shallow breathing, adrenaline rush, light-headedness, a fast pulse – all due to the flight/fight/freeze parasympathetic response in your body. Your breathing usually returns to its normal, slower state after the stress goes, or the exercise stops.

Sometimes this doesn’t happen, due to a ‘stressor’, and breathing can often remain chronically too fast, or ‘high’ in the chest (‘uptight’) reducing the carbon dioxide/oxygen ratio in the body. ‘Fuzzy thinking’, anxiety, ‘shakes’, holding the in-breath, taking deep gasps of air after a few shallower breaths, or sighing a lot, is typical. People often don’t realise they may have set up a cycle of anxiety/tension, and tend not to link their symptoms with the way that they’ve been breathing. If you habitually take 10-12 breaths per minute or more, then try gradually slowing the rate down.


In face-to-face sessions, I teach people to take fewer breaths per minute; ideally between 5 and 8, which is far more calming. We in the Western world seem to have forgotten how important controlled breathing can be to our mental and physical well-being. The following disciplines all place attention on correct breathing:



Tai Chi

Qi Gong


Good posture is essential for good breathing. (If you are hunched or slouched there is not enough room for your diaphragm to move freely). Sitting and standing up straight will help you to use your diaphragm and breathe more effectively. Imagining some string pulling the top of your head up as you go through your day, whilst keeping your shoulders relaxed, can help.


Taking time to relax can be a very effective way to gain control of your breathing. Reading, taking a bath, and other ordinary activities are all ways of relaxing the mind and body. There are also many relaxation tapes and exercises available on the market. However, when you use tapes or exercise programmes ensure that you ignore instructions to take deep (strong, forced) breaths, as this is counter-productive to controlled breathing from the belly. (See ‘Myths and Misconceptions’ below).


Try and take regular balanced meals. If you tend to snack, cut down on foods high in carbohydrate such as chocolate bars or crisps as they make your sugar levels rise then fall rapidly. This can act as a trigger to make you over-breathe. Cut down on drinks that contain stimulants such as caffeine as these can also trigger your body to over-breathe. Tea, coffee and cola are all drinks that are high in caffeine. Try decaffeinated alternatives instead.


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