Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation® Blog - Breathing Techniques For Reducing Stress 4503

Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation® Blog - Breathing Techniques For Reducing Stress


Nurses are no strangers to stress. Even if we do everything possible to stay balanced and mentally healthy, the job often involves high-risk situations, emotional conversations, and long hours.

As with many health practices, check with your healthcare provider to ensure these are the right techniques for you prior to beginning.  Discontinue any of these breathing techniques if they cause any discomfort.

Many stress-reducing tactics can help alleviate or prevent chronic stress, such as:
But when your cortisol climbs, it’s helpful to know how to stop your body’s natural stress response in its tracks. That way, you can get back to your patients, work, and life.

The answer is deep breathing.

It doesn’t require any equipment, doesn’t take up space, and can happen anywhere. The trick is learning and practicing deep breathing techniques when you aren’t stressed. That way you can rely on them to work when you are stressed.

Deep Breathing Techniques to Try
Most deep breathing techniques are based on pranayama, the ancient yogic practice of controlling your breath. Pranayama is associated with improved lung function and reduced blood pressure. But it also incorporates an aspect of mindfulness that can be mentally calming during a time of high stress.

There are many ways to practice deep breathing. As with many health practices, checking with your health care provider before introducing deep breathing techniques can ensure the practice will be safe and right for you. Discontinue any of these techniques if they cause discomfort.

Common breathing techniques for relieving stress include:

Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
Belly breathing is at the heart of most deep breathing techniques. It involves controlled breathing using your diaphragm — the large muscle below the lungs. Contracting and relaxing the diaphragm helps to pull air in and out of the lungs.

When your body is responding to stress, it’s typical for breathing to be shallow and involve the upper chest instead of the diaphragm. Focusing on belly breathing naturally relaxes the body and calms your nervous system. Research also shows that implementing diaphragmatic breathing significantly lowers your levels of cortisol — the primary stress hormone.

To perform diaphragmatic breathing:
  1. Sit in a chair, or lie down keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed
  2. Place your hand on your stomach
  3. Breathe in through your nose, noticing your belly rise as it fills with air
  4. Exhale through your mouth for twice as long as you inhaled

Pursed Lip Breathing
This breathing technique helps get more oxygen into your lungs so you can gain control of your breathing. Pursing your lips (as if you’re about to blow out a candle or sip from a straw) helps open airways and makes breathing easier.
              You can use pursed lip breathing while you perform diaphragmatic breathing:
  1. Sit in a chair with your neck and shoulders relaxed
  2. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 2
  3. Purse your lips
  4. Gently exhale through your pursed lips for a count of 4

Intermittent Breath Retention
This deep breathing technique involves holding your breath between inhalation and exhalation. It offers the benefits of belly breathing while also calming the mind.

The counting involved in intermittent breath retention keeps your mind focused on the moment and your breath. There are a variety of counting patterns to choose from, but popular intermittent breathing techniques include:
  • Box breathing: Visualize a square for this technique (also called 4-square or square breathing). The steps in box breathing include:
  1. Slowly inhaling through your nose for 4 counts
  2. Holding your breath for 4 counts
  3. Exhaling slowly and steadily through the mouth for 4 counts
  4. Holding your breath for 4 counts
  5. Repeat 4 times
  • 4-7-8 Breathing Technique: This technique is like box breathing, but you’ll exhale longer than you inhale. The steps include:
  1. Inhaling through your nose for 4 counts
  2. Holding your breath for 7 counts
  3. Exhaling gently through the mouth for 8 counts
  4. Repeat 3 to 7 times

Alternate Nostril Breathing
Another slow breathing exercise is alternate nostril breathing. Like box breathing, it involves an equal ratio of inhalation, breath holding, and exhalation. But all the breathing is done through the nose using only one nostril at a time.

In one study, participants who practiced alternate nostril breathing 5 times a week for 12 weeks reported reduced stress levels. Another small study found that using alternate nostril breathing for 15 minutes reduced blood pressure.

To perform alternate nostril breathing, take these steps:
  1. Use your right thumb to close your right nostril
  2. Inhale deeply into your left nostril
  3. Pause your breathing
  4. Release your right nostril and close your left nostril with a finger
  5. Exhale slowly through your right nostril
  6. With your right nostril still open, inhale deeply
  7. Pause your breathing
  8. Close your right nostril and release your left nostril
  9. Exhale slowly through your left nostril
  10. Repeat the cycle
Tips to Remember During Breathing Exercises
A couple of general techniques will help you get the most from your breathing exercises. The American Institute of Stress recommends:
  • Exhale gently and longer than you inhale: Exhale twice as long as you inhale. Gently exhaling engages the parasympathetic (calming) part of the nervous system.
  • Take your time: One or two deep breaths will not likely stop your body’s stress response. Take your time. Keep your breathing slow and controlled for as long as it takes to bring your nervous system back into balance.
  • Be mindful: Counting to yourself as you inhale and exhale helps to control your breathing. Focus on each breath and how it feels.

Practice Makes Perfect
Deep breathing daily offers both long-term and immediate stress reduction. Becoming familiar with specific breathing techniques when you’re calm makes it easier to execute them when you feel stressed. Trying them out beforehand will also help you identify the techniques that make you most comfortable and help you relax. Practice controlled breathing a few times daily for 2 to 5 minutes at a time.

Have you ever used your breath to calm yourself? If so, what’s your favorite technique? Share with us in our private Facebook group, or on Twitter, or Instagram, and tag us with #healthynurse.


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Blog Mental Health 08/07/2023 2:49pm CDT

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Mental Health
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The nature and stresses of the nursing profession can take a toll on your mental health. This domain deals with your psychological affect and health. Mental wellbeing practices, stress relief resources, and personal stories are just some of the assets included here.