Relationship between breathing and stress

breathe deeply, calm outdoors.jpeg

Breathing has long been associated with stress, or more accurately, relaxation. Breathing exercises are a popular relaxation technique, either by themselves or as part of another activity such as yoga or Pilates. But is this really an effective technique? In this blog, we’re going to look at the relationship between breathing and stress.

When Stressed

When we are under stress, our breathing tends to change quite noticeably. Rather than being a subconscious action, we begin to take a lot of quick, short breaths. Although this is an instinctive response, it is actually completely counterproductive. Taking quick, short breaths is a far less efficient way to absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, meaning our bodies get less of what they need and become even more panicked. Although this is a natural reaction to stress, overcoming it can help beat stress.


Because of the fact that breathing exercises are so commonly associated with relaxation, many people feel that taking big, deep breaths will help them relax. This is not the case. There are a number of different techniques that need to be used if breathing exercises are to effectively relax a person.

If you decide that these are techniques you want to use regularly, the setting you choose is entirely up to you. Some people prefer to have music, some prefer to sit cross-legged. What really matters is the actual manner in which you breathe. Firstly, you should breathe in through your nose and out your mouth. You may not think it matters which way you inhale or exhale, but this way allows for the smoothest flow of air.

You should inhale deeply, and slowly, but here is where a lot of people make a major mistake. There is a big difference between inhaling and sucking in. For the breathing to be relaxing, the stomach and the ribcage should both appear to expand. In reality, most people will expand their ribs and contract their stomach, which actually prevents the diaphragm from properly lining up. By practicing inhaling properly, you should feel as though a bit of stress slips away each time you move the diaphragm up and down. You should also make an effort to relax your shoulder muscles, as this is where a lot of stress manifests, and it can be tempting to move these with the breathing. Doing this should trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax.


The goal of these techniques is of course to help people relax, but this in turn leads to knock on effects that benefit people in other ways. Breathing techniques such as these can help lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones such as cortisol. They also improve our mental health, physical energy, and immune system.

While breathing may seem like a simple or possibly ineffective tactic to reduce stress, it can be an effective one if done correctly. It is the fact that it appears too simple that leads people to carry out these exercises incorrectly, so bear the above points in mind, and you could find a big difference in the effectiveness of these methods. 

David Clarke