There's no getting away from stress for most of us — whether at work, at home or just reading about the crises around the world — with real consequences for our health.
People who experience chronic stress show signs of accelerated immune aging, a recent study found. And stress is associated with around a 20% increase in the risk of death, researchers announced in July 2023.
The holidays add yet another layer to the laundry list of every-day stressors we are already juggling. From financial concerns, to navigating family dynamics, to the added chores and errands that come with the season, the stress can sometimes feel overwhelming.
The good news? Researchers also found that managing stress is one of eight healthy habits Americans can adopt to live substantially longer. (The other habits included exercise, being free from opioid addiction, not smoking, eating a healthy diet, avoiding binge drinking, ensuring good sleep and having positive social relationships.)
“We were really surprised by just how much could be gained with the adoption of one, two, three or all eight lifestyle factors,” said Xuan-Mai T. Nguyen, health science specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, in a statement. "The earlier the better, but even if you only make a small change in your 40s, 50s or 60s, it still is beneficial.”
To manage stress and anxiety, psychologists say feeling calmer is a matter of something you likely take for granted: your breath.
Change it and you can change your emotions by altering the signals that go to the brain, says Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and coauthor of “The Healing Power of the Breath.”
“The brain listens to the lungs, so the way that we breathe has a tremendous effect on how the brain functions for many different mechanisms,” Gerbarg tells TODAY.com. “The messages from the respiratory system are very powerful and very rapid, and we think they have top priority.”
If you’re hungry and happen to stub your toe and then choke on gum at the same time, which of those three signals is the brain going to pay attention to? Breathing, of course, because otherwise you’d be dead in a few minutes.
Breathing is also the only automatic body function for which we have voluntary control.
“We can’t just change our heartbeat or our digestion, but we can change our breathing pattern by thinking about it,” Gerbarg says.
“If you use your body to communicate with your brain, the messages bypass all of the worrying and obsessing. They just go straight into the main regulatory centers of the brain.”
Brain scans show slower breathing reduces anxiety and fear, while increasing the ability to reason — so the thinking mind restrains the emotional part of the mind, helping a person evaluate the situation better, Gerbarg notes.
Deeper, slower breathing can also let your body know to come out of fight-or-flight mode, says Anne Bartolucci, a clinical psychologist, adjunct assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and author of “Better Sleep for the Overachiever.”
“It’s a nice, quick way to calm down and it’s also a way to signal to yourself that you’re taking care of yourself,” Bartolucci says.
Here are four breathing techniques you can employ right now to destress and relax.
Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, this exercise can help you turn on the parasympathetic — or the calming “rest and digest” — part of the autonomic nervous system, Bartolucci says.
Babies are natural belly breathers, while adults usually become chest breathers — a less efficient way to take in oxygen. To return back to basics, Bartolucci instructs her patients to:
- Find a comfortable position — lying down may be easier because you get a better range of motion.
- Inhale slowly with the belly for four seconds. The abdomen should rise, while the chest moves minimally or not at all.
- Exhale for four seconds or longer.
- Do this practice every day, working up to five minutes of belly breathing. Also use it in the moment when you need to relax.
Bartolucci prescribes this breathing technique to her patients and does it herself to calm down.
“My husband can tell when I’m getting annoyed with him because he sees my belly start moving,” she said.
A typical adult takes about 15-20 breaths per minute, but the sweet spot of experiencing relaxation and optimal brain function is to slow that down to five breaths per minute, Gerbarg says. This pace lets the brain know everything is safe and fine.
She recommended these steps:
- Download any breath pacing app that will give you cues about when to breathe in and out. Similar instructions can also be found online. The idea is to not think about counting or anything else, but just focus on breathing.
- Follow the cues and breathe softly, preferably through the nose, with your eyes closed so you can focus inward and block out external distractions.
- “Just move the air very slowly — it’s not really a deep breath. It’s a slow, gentle breath,” Gerbarg advises. Your belly will naturally expand.
- Work up to doing about 20 minutes of this technique per day. You can also employ it whenever you’re feeling anxious and at night if you’re having trouble falling asleep.
After you become familiar with this type of breathing, Gerbarg also advises practicing during the day with your eyes open so you can do it anywhere without others noticing.
“It’s very powerful,” she says.
Sleep specialist and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus previously told TODAY.com this simple exercises lowers the heart rate and provides a calming sensation:
- First, breathe in through your nose for the count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Breathe out through your mouth while counting to eight.
Dr. Melissa Young, an integrative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends doing three cycles of this breathing technique twice a day to make it a habit.
This is one of the daily routines practiced and recommended by Mark Divine, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL commander who believes awareness and control of your breath “is the best tool to bring initial control over our mind.”
Here’s how to do it:
- Start in a seated position and exhale all of your air.
- Inhale for a count of five.
- Hold your breath for a count of five.
- Exhale for a count of five.
- Hold your breath for a count of five.
- Keep the pattern going and repeat this cycle five times.