How to reduce stress with deep breathing

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Using Basic Breath Work to Relieve Stress

After practicing yoga for more than 20 years, the one tool I’ve used more in the last several months for stress relief is breath work.

Such a simple practice with astounding results, but we take it for granted because our bodies breathe automatically for us.

👉 With one simple tweak, you can change the quality of your breathing TODAY.

In this blog post I’m going to share:

  • Intro to Breath Work
  • Anatomy of Breathing
  • What is Stress?
  • How Breath and Stress are Linked
  • Basic Breath Work (with video instructions)

introduction to breath work

Approximately one trillion cells operate inside your body. In order for them to carry out their functions and sustain life, they require oxygen.

Your respiratory system controls the bringing in of and distributing oxygen throughout your body. Since your survival depends on a constant supply, your brain takes care of it automatically.

However, the rate of unconscious breathing is usually only enough to maintain survival.

Think quantity over quality.

Sprinkle on some stress, and BAM, the quality falls way short of what you need to really thrive.

anatomy of breathing

The muscle responsible for 75% of your breathing is the diaphragm.

Or at least it’s supposed to be. More on that in a moment.

Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located underneath the ribs. It separates the upper and lower thoracic portions of your body.

breath work diaphragm

When you inhale, the diaphragm drops down and creates additional space in your upper body to allow more oxygen to enter. As you exhale, the diaphragm presses into your lungs to help your body expel the breath.

There are two other sets of muscles that help the diaphragm, the abdominals and intercostals (muscles between the ribs). Together, these muscles inflate and deflate your lungs.

breath work abdominals

Higher up in the body, you also have some smaller muscle groups that contribute to breathing: the pectorales, trapeziuses, and sternocleidomastoids.

These smaller muscles are designed to assist in breathing in certain situations, but not do the heavy lifting like their larger counterparts.

breath work smaller respiratory muscle smaller muscles

chest breathing problems

Unfortunately, the majority of people use these smaller muscles for breathing instead of their diaphragm. If you’re one of them, you’re known as a chest breather.

Chest breathing creates a cascade of problems.

First, when you breathe using your chest, the quality of breath is lower. Second, those small muscles easily fatigue from overuse (because that’s not their job). Then these overworked muscles get tight and produce tension in the area.

But the biggest problem with chest breathing has do with stress.

what is stress

Stress is a psychological or physical situation or condition that causes tension or strain.

Your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) is responsible for all the functions in your body. It’s divided into autonomic and periphery tasks.

The periphery controls things like walking and finger snapping while your autonomic system controls functions like your heart beating and blood pressure.

central nervous system

When you experience stress, your lizard brain interprets that as danger and responds automatically, activating your sympathetic nervous system.

Your sympathetic nervous system signals your body to secrete adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine, hormones which boosts your body’s functions:

  • Pupils dilate
  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Digestion decreases
  • Liver releases glucose
  • Muscle tone increases

your stress response

You have no control over these physiological responses your body will take.

Once your body perceives danger (or stress in most cases) and the above physiological responses are underway, you’ll react to the situation in one of four ways.


In survival mode, the boosted functions allow an animal to either fight its attacker, run away from the threat, freeze up like a deer in the headlights, or faint.

When a person experiences stress (versus danger), the four responses might manifest like:

  • Flight–I’m going to organize my attic or mow the lawn instead of the needed task.
  • Fight–I’m going to write one more email before I allow myself to rest.
  • Freeze–I’m so overwhelmed with everything I don’t know where to start, so I won’t.
  • Faint–I’m so tired. I need to go to bed and maybe tomorrow it will be better.

Typically, once the danger has passed, the parasympathetic system activates and rids your body of all the stress hormones.

Unfortunately we all seem to be under a constant state of stress which means a constant supply of adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine circulating through our systems.

Long-term exposure to stress hormones is linked to an increased risk of several health issues.

breath and stress linked

When the stress response is activated, your trachea remains open and your bronchial tubes dilate. This signals your respiration to turn short and shallow in order to quickly oxygenate your blood.

The fast intake of oxygen falls to your smaller respiratory muscles: your pectorales, trapeziuses, and sternocleidomastoids.

Then it becomes a cycle. A vicious one.

breath work cycle

But you can break the cycle with long, deep inhalations. The shift from autonomic breathing to conscious breath work induces relaxation and activates your parasympathetic system.

Your heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, and the stress hormones are eliminated from your body.

basic breath work

There are many different types of breath work, most with the benefit of inducing a state of relaxation. However the easiest and most powerful one is basic belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing.

And I don’t use the terms easiest and powerful lightly.

My husband owns a fitness tracker that measures oxygen saturation. I put it on for an initial measurement which came back at 92%. Not great. His doctor states oxygen saturation needs to be at least 97%.

Round two.

I lay on the floor and practiced deep belly breathing for 60-90 seconds. The watch measured my oxygen saturation at 98%.

Deep breathing works.

And in the video below, I show you how to do this easy and powerful belly breathing.

final tips on breath work

As you’re forming the habit to check in with your breath, set an alert on your phone or computer to remind you every hour to inhale and exhale deeply.

The more awareness you bring to your breath, the better you’ll feel. Deep, conscious breathing will help you sleep easier at night, give you a mid-afternoon boost, and generally improve your overall well being.

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use basic breathing exercises to reduce stress
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Shannon with Purple Lotus Yoga
Hi! I'm Shannon

For 20 years, I’ve helped women of all ages and sizes to realize their dreams of becoming inspiring yoga teachers. 

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