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Breathe better, stress less

by rt staff writer in Wellbeing
6 min read

You take around 20,000 breaths every day without thinking about it. Did you know that the way you breathe can have a big impact on your health?

When you breathe in, you inhale oxygen, and you exhale carbon dioxide when you breathe out. Having the right mix of these gases in your bloodstream is important. If your breathing is poor (shallow), less oxygen reaches your cells and the effects can range from poor sleep to anxiety and depression.

Having a little stress in life is vital – it’s the spark that gets you out of bed in the morning and motivates you throughout the day. However, constant, high levels of stress can be damaging and can affect the quality of your breathing.

Stress effects

When you are in a potentially dangerous position – one where you have to fight or take flight – your body releases large amounts of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol.

This was important in our hunter-gatherer days when we had to fight for our food or take flight from a large animal that didn’t want to be hunted. Thousands of years later, your body still releases the same stress hormones when you feel anxious. If you don’t have a method to calm your body and mind, such as exercise or meditation, anxiety can build and may cause serious health problems.

Stress can have a big impact on your breathing. For example, you might take shorter, sharper breaths, which is a part of the fight or flight response. Breathing this way for prolonged periods means you only use the top third of your lungs – it’s as if you are permanently hyperventilating.

Hyperventilation raises your heart rate, contributing to palpitations, anxiety and the feeling of being out of control.

Getting the balance right

Shallow breathing can also alter the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. This can make you feel spaced out and can contribute to panic attacks, insomnia, dizziness and tiredness.

It’s not in the bag! Experts now say that you should avoid breathing into a paper bag if you are hyperventilating. Several medical conditions, such as asthma and heart attacks, can be confused with hyperventilation so reducing oxygen and increasing carbon dioxide can be deadly.1

Do you have 10 minutes for these breathing exercises?

Practicing controlled breathing is a great way to boost mind and body health. It also helps lower blood pressure, promotes feelings of calm and relaxation, and helps you to de-stress. Try some of these easy breathing exercises. They incorporate the ancient wisdom of yoga and can be done anywhere.

1. Equal breathing

Inhale for a count of four then exhale for a count of four all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath. As you practice and get better at controlling your breath, aim for six to eight seconds rather than four.

Best for: Increasing focus.

2. Abdominal breathing

Ever watched a baby breathe? The soft rise and fall of the belly is a natural way to breathe but adults forget how to breathe properly. Returning to abdominal breathing is an important way to relax.

Place your left hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath in through the nose, inflating your diaphragm (the large sheet-like muscle at the bottom of your chest cavity) and not your chest. Take in enough air to expand your lungs. Repeat for six to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes every day.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds and may take practice. When you breathe in and out, your left hand should remain still and only your right hand should move up and down. If your left hand is moving, your breathing is too shallow and you are not inflating your diaphragm, as you should. Keep practicing; it’s definitely worth it. Do this regularly for the best effects.

Best for: Deflating stress or preparing for a stressful event. 

3. Progressive relaxation

Close your eyes and, starting with your toes and feet, tense then relax. Move on to your calves, knees, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, arms, hands, fingers, neck, jaw, forehead and eyes, all the while breathing slowly and deeply.

Try breathing in through the nose, and holding for a count of five while your muscles tense. Breathe out through the mouth as you release the tension.

Best for: When you need to de-stress at work or at home.


1 The New York Times. The Claim: If You’re Hyperventilating, Breathe Into a Paper Bag. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/health/13real.html 

This wellbeing message is brought to you by the health and wellbeing team at rt health – the health fund for transport and energy people. You are welcome to reproduce this article with mention of rt health as the source. The health information provided here is intended to be informative only and should be carefully evaluated for its source, accuracy, completeness and relevance for your purposes. It is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional. Always obtain appropriate professional advice relevant to your particular circumstances.