The power of breath: A therapists guide to harnessing deep breathing for stress relief

Health & FitnessExercise & Meditation

  • Author John Sanders
  • Published November 15, 2023
  • Word count 845

Breathing, something we do effortlessly thousands of times a day, often goes unnoticed. But have you ever stopped to think about the different ways we breathe and the profound impact it can have on our mental and physical well-being? In this blog post, we're going to delve deep into the world of breathing and explore how harnessing the power of deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help you navigate the storms of stress, anxiety, and tension. As a therapist, I've witnessed the transformative effects of proper breathing techniques, and I'm here to share this knowledge with you.

The Two Faces of Breathing

At first glance, it may seem that breathing is a simple, involuntary act we perform without much thought. However, the way we breathe can significantly affect our mental and physical states. Let's take a closer look at the two primary breathing patterns: thoracic (chest) breathing and diaphragmatic (belly) breathing.

Thoracic Breathing: The Fight-or-Flight Response

Imagine a scenario where you're being chased by a grizzly bear, or perhaps you're faced with a stressful deadline at work. In these situations, your body kicks into high gear, and you start breathing rapidly, taking shallow breaths. This type of breathing primarily involves expanding your chest and minimally utilizing your diaphragm. We call this thoracic breathing.

Thoracic breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the fight-or-flight response. While this type of breathing is essential for survival and can be helpful during vigorous exercise or real danger, we often fall into this pattern unnecessarily. Chronic thoracic breathing can make us feel more anxious and stressed and even lead to hyperventilation.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Calm and Relaxation Response

Now, imagine a moment of tranquility, such as after a relaxing bath or a peaceful meditation session. During these moments, you likely find yourself breathing slowly and deeply, drawing in optimal air to your lungs via the diaphragm. This is diaphragmatic breathing, and it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a sense of calm and relaxation.

Deep belly breathing is a powerful tool for both the mind and body. Scientifically proven to alleviate symptoms of conditions like PTSD, pain, depression, and anxiety, it's no wonder that diaphragmatic breathing has gained recognition in reputable publications like NPR, Harvard, TIME, The New York Times, the National Institutes of Health, and The Wall Street Journal.

My Personal Journey with Deep Breathing

I'm not just a therapist but also someone who has struggled with the fight-or-flight response during unnecessary and non-threatening situations. Before I discovered the wonders of deep belly breathing, I would find myself spiraling into anxiety when faced with uncertainty or worry about relationships, finances, deadlines, or health. These emotions would trigger my thoracic breathing, making the situation even more challenging.

It all changed when I embarked on a journey into the world of yoga. My yoga teacher introduced me to deep breathing techniques that instantly resonated with me. We began with simple exercises like lying down, placing a hand on our belly and another on our heart, and visualizing the breath expanding and contracting. As we progressed, we practiced pranayama, an ancient art of breath control, which consistently left me feeling calm and centered.

Taking these breathing exercises beyond the yoga mat, I incorporated them into my daily life. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, or restless, I would pause and perform some belly breathing. The results were remarkable – an instant sense of ease and clarity.

Deep Breathing Techniques

If you're intrigued and want to give deep breathing a try, here are some techniques to get you started:

General Deep Breathing

Find a quiet place to sit or lie down.

Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your abdomen expand.

Exhale slowly through your mouth or nose while your abdomen deflates.

Try this technique for at least eight rounds, adjusting the duration and breath in/out methods to suit your comfort.

Four-Seven-Eight Technique

Inhale through your nose for a count of four.

Hold your breath for a count of seven.

Exhale through your nose for a count of eight.

This technique employs counting to maximize deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Visual Breathing Guide

There are fantastic videos available that provide visual cues to synchronize your breath. This tool can be invaluable for slowing down, calming down, and taking deep breaths.


Breathing is not just a biological survival mechanism; it is also a powerful tool that we can use to our advantage, both physically and mentally. By understanding the distinctions between thoracic and diaphragmatic breathing and practicing deep breathing techniques, you can harness the soothing power of your breath to reduce the effects of stress, anxiety, and tension in your life.

Deep breathing won't eliminate the underlying issues that cause you stress, but it can offer you a temporary sense of calm. In those moments, you'll find clarity, the ability to think rationally, and the strength to tackle life's challenges with grace.

As a therapist, I encourage you to explore the potential of your breath. Take some time each day to cultivate the practice of deep belly breathing, and let it become another tool in your set.

Lisa Magdalena

Therapist at EXJWC counseling services

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