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by Susan Dawson-Cook

March 23, 2020

Try these techniques to release stress and anxiety and relax your body and mind

You might rely on the pool to release your stress and anxiety, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the blissful exertion of Masters workouts, interactions with fellow swimmers, and competitive opportunities are suddenly unavailable.

But you can find sanctuary through breathing. Aligning your thoughts with your breath is an effective way to calm your mind. Attending to the present moment and temporarily letting go of worries about the past or future brings a state of relaxation to your mind and provides replenishment for your whole body.

Here are three breathing techniques that work well for relaxing your body and mind.

Note: If you experience lightheadedness, undue anxiety, or any other physical discomfort when practicing any of these techniques, stop right away and return to your normal breathing pattern.

1:2 Breathing

Author Kelly McGonigal discusses the relief breath, also known as the 1:2 ratio breath or the calming breath, in her book, “Yoga for Pain Relief.” Her book includes several breathing techniques and yoga practices that relieve pain and stress.

Lengthening out your exhale shuts down your emergency stress response and triggers a relaxation response in your body. McGonigal says that focusing on something within your control (your breath) creates a sense of safety that can make your mind and body less sensitive to threats.

Sit in easy pose (Sukhasana) (or in a chair with your shoulders back and feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor). To sit in easy pose, you may want to put a blanket under your hips for support. Cross your shins, bend your knees, and open your legs apart, tucking the sides of your feet under your legs. Allow your belly to expand as you inhale. Slow your exhalation by breathing out through pursed lips as if you had a straw between your lips. Imagine that you are blowing your breath out slowly through the straw. Draw your abdominal muscles inward at the end of the exhale to release the last bit of air.

Now start to count the length of your natural inhalation and exhalation. Over several rounds of breathing, aim to work up to an exhale twice as long as your inhale. For example, you might do a four-count inhalation and an eight-count exhalation. Make sure to approach this breathing practice with mindful attention and patience, rather than forcing it to happen. Otherwise, it may induce stress rather than relaxing your system. During the extended exhale, visualize breathing out and releasing all of your stress and anxiety.

If a 1:2 breathing ratio continues to feel like a strain, find your own breathing rhythm that includes a somewhat elongated exhale compared to the inhale. You can do your established breathing rhythm for several rounds or as long as you desire as long as you can breathe this way with intention and without strain.

4:7:8 Breathing

Anxiety over the world situation and the reduction of available training options may make it difficult for some people to fall asleep. Andrew Weil, the founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine recommends 4:7:8, or relaxation breathing, to alleviate anxiety and prepare for sleep. This form of breathing is also purported to help manage cravings and anger outbursts. Many people claim practicing this breathwork enables them to fall asleep within one minute.

Sit in easy pose (Sukhasana) (or in a chair with your shoulders back and feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor). Place your tongue on the soft tissue just behind your front teeth. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then exhale forcefully through your mouth with your lips pursed (making a whooshing sound) for eight counts. Repeat for up to four breath cycles. Once you’re comfortable with the breathing rhythm, you can gradually increase the number of breathing cycles performed in a single session. Individuals who find this breathing pattern too long can halve the intervals, performing counts of 2:3.5:4.

If you'd like some extra help, there are apps for breathing practice. The free Breathe app for iOS devices coaches users through the 4:7:8 breathing. The Prana Breath: Calm and Meditate app, available in the Google Play store, walks users through various breathing techniques. Insight Timer, available for iOS and Android devices, offers a timed meditation feature as well as a variety of other meditations and yoga nidra scripts. Many of these target anxiety and stress.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana pranayama in Sanskrit, is a great technique for lowering heart rate and blood pressure and reducing the release of stress hormones. It is best practiced on an empty stomach. During this time, you should ensure that your hands are properly washed before performing this breathing practice, or perhaps skip the face-touching portion altogether. You should also skip this breathing practice if you’re congested.

Sit in easy pose (Sukhasana) (or in a chair with your shoulders back and feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor). The focus required to do this breathing technique is part of what makes it so effective at blocking out extraneous chatter in your mind.

Bring your right hand up to your nose, maintaining a tall posture. Extend all five fingers and then fold your index and middle finger in toward your palm, leaving your thumb and ring and pinky fingers extended. You will use your thumb to close your right nostril, and your pinky and ring fingers to close off the left.

Pinching off the left nostril with the two fingers, inhale through your right nostril. Pinch off your right nostril with your thumb, and exhale through your left nostril. Inhale through your left nostril and then pinch off the left nostril with your fingers and exhale through the right nostril. This is one cycle. If you find this cumbersome, you may use your thumb and index finger instead, which I find easier. Continue this breathing pattern for up to five minutes.

To extend your breathing session, simply continue, or you can stop pinching off the nostrils and simply visualize that alternating nostril breathing is taking place for 10 breaths or longer. Then you can visualize breathing through only the right nostril and the whole right side of your body (as if every pore of your skin is absorbing your breath) for 10 breaths and then visualize breathing only through the whole left side of your body for 10 breaths. Conclude by allowing your breath to be drawn in through both nostrils and your whole body for 10 breaths.


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  • Mental Training