3 Simple Breathwork Exercises to Help You Keep Calm and Manage Stress

Are your shoulders up to your ears lately? You are so not alone. It seems like year after year—particularly in the wake of a global pandemic—stress remains at an all-time high for many of us. With busy schedules, packed work weeks, and the constant inundation of notifications, our always-on-world is filled with stressors. While stress-relief products and regular exercise can do wonders, there’s an even simpler approach that’s always at our fingertips: breathing exercises for stress that help calm our nerves and achieve a greater sense of inner peace.

An anxiety-inducing news cycle and the widespread commonality of chronic stress (among countless other factors beyond our control) leave us susceptible to illness by decreasing our immune system response. Yikes! Thankfully, breathing exercises for stress are one of the simplest—and most effective—ways to counteract this new normal.

Ahead, discover three simple, but game-changing breathing exercises for stress that you can do just about anywhere.

Featured image from our interview with Nitsa Citrine by Claire Huntsberger.

Image by Jenn Rose Smith

What is breathwork?

Breathwork is the larger term for a variety of methods that focus on harnessing the rhythm, pattern, control, and power of your breathing to bring positive effects into your mind and body. While the benefits span the emotional, mental, and physical, a central reason many of us are coming to the practice today is breathwork’s ability to help us reduce stress.

Ashley Neese, a certified breathwork teacher, previously shared with us a breakdown of how breathwork positively impacts stress levels. Essentially, stressful situations activate our sympathetic nervous system, kicking our ‘fight or flight’ hormones into gear. By practicing breathing exercises for stress when this occurs, we can “create balance, peace, and space in the body to offset the energy deficiency.”

Breathwork is an ancient healing tool with roots in pranayama, or the healing breathwork exercises of yogic teaching. One of the beautiful things about breathwork is that we carry this tool with us wherever we go, and it’s available to us as an almost instant release. 

Image by Teal Thomsen

3 Breathing Exercises for Stress

The scientific study of neuroplasticity has shown us that regularly practicing breathing exercises for stress can rewire our brain, helping us experience a more consistent state of calm.

I’ll use a metaphor. Imagine your brain as a forest. You’ll walk along two paths in this forest: stress and calm. The more you walk on a certain path, the more developed it becomes. Each time you walk on it, it becomes a little easier as the path becomes more ingrained.

This is how your brain and neural pathways work with emotions that impact your nervous systems. The more you “walk that path” or practice either the act of stress or the act of calm, the easier it is to do in the future. Your brain is strikingly malleable and capable of adapting.

Understanding this, you can trust that you can combat any negative pathway in your brain by leaning into a state of calm. The more you practice breathing exercises for stress, the more your body and mind understand that as a baseline.

Ready to destress? I’m sharing my three favorite breathing exercises for stress and breaking them down step by step. I promise, even trying just one exercise will be time well spent.

Image by Riley Blanks Reed

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Setup: A yoga mat with a pillow or blanket rolled under your head and neck and a blanket over your body to promote calmness.

  1. Begin by lying on your back or taking a comfortable seat in a quiet, calm environment. 
  2. Place one hand over your belly and one over your heart. Begin taking deep long breaths, expanding your belly so you can feel your hand moving up and down. A comfortable, slow pace is important. Inhale for six seconds and exhale for six seconds.
  3. Once you get into this slow breath pattern, continue the pace and begin to focus on your body’s sensations of tension versus relaxation.
  4. As you inhale, pretend your breath is going right into your face, head, and neck, expanding this part of your body. On each exhale, let the muscles in this area relax. On your next inhale, move to your next muscle group, perhaps the shoulders and back. Feel your body relax and sink into the earth with each exhale.  
  5. Continue through each muscle group, working through your body head to toe.

Summary: Don’t worry about getting the muscle groups precisely correct. Simply work your way from one end of the body to the next. If this feels great, do it again or move from your feet back up to your face. It can be helpful to picture white, clean light entering your body as you inhale and any stress and tension leaving your body as black smoke, puffing away with each exhale. 

Image by Michelle Nash

2. Slow Your Roll

Setup: Find a comfortable seat or place to lie down. The beautiful thing about this breathing exercise for stress is that it can be done anywhere.

  1. Once you’re comfortable, begin by taking long, slow breaths. At the top of your breath (or when you’re done inhaling), see if you sip a little more air and then slowly, calmly release your exhalation.
  2. Your exhalation should be roughly twice the length of your inhalation. Don’t stress and simply focus on taking a long, slow breath that feels good.

Summary: Practice this exercise for as long as you’d like. Ideally, aim for 10 minutes. From there, slowly increase your practice time as feels best.

By taking slow, deep breaths, our bodies receive a signal that we are safe. In essence, it’s the opposite of the fight or flight response. On a cellular level, your body trusts that it’s protected and doesn’t need to worry about fighting off predators. To send your body this calm signal, all you have to do is take long slow breaths, with even longer exhalations. 

Image by Michelle Nash

3. 4-7-8 Breathing

Setup: Find a calm and quiet environment to sit or lie down. You can keep your hands on your lap, by your sides, or consider placing one hand on your belly and one on your heart.

  1. Inhale deeply for four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  3. Release your exhalation over eight seconds. Repeat!

Summary: I love this style of breathing exercises for stress, especially for beginners, but anyone may find it supportive. Focusing on the length of your inhales, holds, and exhales can help you get out of your head and stay present.

If this is difficult at first, practice 3-4 sets at a time or whatever you’re comfortable with. You may also consider shortening the counts to 3-5-6 and doing five or ten sets at a time, working your way up.

Image by Michelle Nash

Tips to Make Breathwork a Habit

There’s research that shows linking a desired new habit with another routine you do every day increases your chance of developing the new habit. With breathing exercises for stress, you can add it to something you already do in the morning—like making tea or coffee. Every time you put a kettle on, try practicing a few minutes of breathwork as you wait for it to boil. That way, this new habit has a much higher chance of becoming a daily ritual.

The Takeaway

Here’s the tough news: stress isn’t going away. It’s a fact of our everyday lives, but we can learn to manage it in healthier ways. By honing in on healthy habits, continually reworking stress reduction and self-care, and being gentle with ourselves, we can promote healing in our lives and the lives of others. Remind yourself daily: don’t forget to breathe!

This post was originally published on April 26, 2021, and has since been updated.

A Breathwork Expert Shares Her Favorite Practices for Cultivating Rest

Tell me if the same is true for you: vacations can be work. Sure, the theory sounds nice—the ability to break away from it all and take time solely to pour into yourself. But in practice? That’s a different story. When our day-to-day lives ask so much from us, putting the breaks on our addiction to busyness isn’t just difficult. Many times, it can feel impossible. Thankfully, teacher and author Ashley Neese reminds us: it isn’t only within our power to escape this hamster wheel of guilt—it’s necessary.

In her new book, Permission to Rest, Ashley invites us to rethink our relationship to rest. Rather than understanding it as a weakness or a moral failing, she asks us to consider the opposite: how rest can fuel and inspire fruitful, flourishing lives. Here at Camille Styles, our team is pursuing simplicity any way we can, in hopes that the resulting space breeds clarity and contentment. It’s a perspective Ashley so evidently shares in her manifesto for a more purposeful, intuition-led existence.

Featured image by Marielle Chua.

Permission to Rest

As we’ve read through Ashley’s book, we’re each awash with the wisdom pouring from every page. And though I’ve taken notes throughout, my favorite line serves as a reminder that rest isn’t a luxury nor an accessory to a beautiful life. In fact, as Ashley so eloquently expresses, the consistent practice of rest is essential:

“Our bodies need rest. Our minds need rest. Our hearts need rest. Our relationships need rest. Our creativity needs rest. Our culture needs rest. Our Earth needs rest.”

Ahead, Ashley shares an exclusive excerpt from her book, releasing on September 19. Her words serve as a call to action, reminding us that to move forward with grace not only in our own lives but as a collective, we have to reposition how we think about slowing down. We have to see rest as a necessary gift to offer ourselves again and again—all throughout our everyday.

Image by Erin Scott

Ashley Neese on the Transformative Power of Rest

Resting is one of the most impactful practices we can adopt for self-compassion, emotional well-being, collective care, and environmental repair. When we take a few moments each day to pause, to feel our exhales, to listen to the sounds that are present, or to notice the way light bends around a corner, we are engaging in a subversive act of reclaiming the innate wisdom within our bodies and within the natural world: the wisdom of rest.

When we practice resting, we allow ourselves to follow an organic rhythm that has the power to heal, to restore, and to liberate us from the oppression of overwork and constant productivity of our culture. When we practice resting, we engage in revolutionary acts that create social and environmental changes, rippling out to shift all aspects of life. Yet most of us will say, on any given day, that we simply cannot take the time to rest. I get it. I’ve been there.

I’ve been on the burnout train more times than I care to admit. I’ve struggled with addiction to substances, to work, to being of service, and to social media. I’ve pushed myself to the point of being bedridden more than once. I’ve fallen into the trap of believing that if I just do more, help more, work more, and keep pushing past my limits, I will finally feel like I am enough. And then I will be able to relax.

I’ve avoided rest for many of the reasons you’ve probably avoided it too: it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. Yet, after years of dodging the medicine I needed the most, I’m here to tell you—there is no substitute for rest. There is no way to escape our fundamental human need for renewal. Individually and as a culture, we have been failing to take care of this essential need, and it’s causing high levels of stress and depletion within ourselves, our communities, and our environment.

We are exhausted. We are overwhelmed. We are weary.

Our bodies need rest. Our minds need rest. Our hearts need rest. Our relationships need rest. Our creativity needs rest. Our culture needs rest. Our Earth needs rest.

The promising news is that the value of rest is gradually on the rise in our collective consciousness. Enough of us are recognizing that feeling depleted and perpetually exhausted doesn’t have to be our baseline. Enough of us are tired of being sick and tired and are choosing to rest, despite existing in a culture that tells us that to rest is to admit weakness and needing to slow down is something that we should be ashamed of.

It’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to pause. It’s okay to rest.

Image left by Marielle Chua | Image right by Erin Scott

3 Practices to Cultivate Rest

Social Media Sabbatical

Taking a break from social media can be very illuminating. To engage with this practice, first decide when you want to begin the sabbatical and for how long—it can be one day, a week, a month, or longer. Do what feels right for you and know you can practice this as often as you like.

When you’re ready, delete the app from your smartphone. Pay attention to what shows up in the following hours, days, and weeks. Notice how often you habitually reach for your device to check the app. Think about what you really want when reach for it: What are hoping it will shift? Do you want it to connect you? Distract you? Numb you? Inspire you? From there, pay attention to how you felt when you reached for it and what you felt when it wasn’t available. Use this new space in your life to redirect your attention to yourself and your desire to rest. Commit to engaging with one of the rest practices from this book during your sabbatical.

When your social media sabbatical is over, download the app back to your device. Notice how you feel as you start to engage with the app and your communities again after a break. How does your body feel? How does your mind feel? How does your nervous system feel? What does your rest look like now? Keep an eye on your usage, and when you feel ready to take another sabbatical, you know what to do.

Remember, you don’t owe anyone on social media anything. Not one single thing. You don’t have to make an announcement when you take a sabbatical—in fact, you can take one whenever you want to because guess what, you’re in charge! You call the shots. You decide how much of your energy, time, creativity, life, and data you give away.

Image by Erin Scott

Cultivate a Rest/Work Rhythm

We often override our internal signals for rest while we work. Our bodies send us clear messages to rest—like fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness, and loss of focus—yet we press on anyway for many of the reasons I’ve shared throughout this book. When we push ourselves to keep going despite the signals to slow down, we start to draw on our emergency reserves—like our stress hormones, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol—to keep us going. This shifts our nervous systems into high gear, or sympathetic arousal, and starts to drain our body budget (see chapter 02, “What Rest Is—and Isn’t”). This is one of the reasons so many of us are burned-out and severely depleted, struggling to get through a day of work without stimulants like caffeine and sugar. When we rely on our own stress hormones to keep us going instead of taking the breaks we need, our work and lives suffer tremendously.

Our bodies have a natural rhythm, just like the circadian rhythm of the moon and sun (see part 06, “Resting from the Outside In”). When we intentionally shift our bodies from overwork and overdrive to a sustainable flow that includes significant blocks of rest, so much in our lives will improve. One rest break at a time, you will begin to feel less depleted and find that you can not only produce work of greater value, you will leave work feeling less depleted and more satisfied.

Schedule periods of rest every ninety minutes when you are working. Ideally they will be twenty-minute breaks but feel free to start with five-or ten-minute breaks and work your way up. During your breaks, be sure to get fresh air, walk around, drink water, and stretch. You can build this rhythm in to your workday to add moments of replenishment.

Nature Bathing

Although forest bathing has its own researched benefits, including the stress-relieving phytoncides from particular trees, Nature Bathing is a practice you can do in any natural environment that feels restorative to you. For example, a twenty-minute stroll through a city botanical garden without being on your smartphone can boost cognition and memory as well as improve feelings of well-being. You can practice in a nearby park or make an adventure of it and go out of town. I highly recommend both. Try to nature bathe in a place close-by once a week and get a little farther away once a month or every other month. I encourage you to organize an annual trip to a state or national park: research shows that the wilder the nature we immerse ourselves in, the greater restoration we experience.

To begin the practice, choose a location. Find a place where you can walk aimlessly and as slowly as possible.

Notice your surroundings as you walk. See the trees, the plants, the light stretching across the land, any wildlife nearby. Listen to the sounds of your environment—the wind blowing, the rising of the tide, the croak of a frog. Feel the ground underneath your feet, the texture of the land. Inhale and exhale deeply, allowing your body to find its way to the place you are currently in. Give your body time to catch up to this moment.

Continue to walk slowly and pay attention to the impulses that your body has to walk in a particular direction and follow them. There is no need to rush. Take your time. You’re not trying to get anywhere; you are basking in the beauty and wonder of nature. You are settling into a more coherent, relaxed state.

When complete, offer gratitude to the land and to anything else you feel called to. Notice how your body feels. Bring awareness to your thoughts, emotions, and sense of spaciousness.

Excerpted from “Permission to Rest” text copyright © 2023 by Ashley Neese. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.”