Thoughts from the Couch

New Year's Belly Breathing Challenge


What if I told you there's a medicine for stress and anxiety you could take that's incredibly effective, completely cost-free, and has zero side effects? Consider the following post a PSA/infomercial for the amazing, life-changing powers of deep breathing. Everyone knows that deep breaths are good for you, and something to do when you're upset. But it's a classic for a reason! Let's talk today about deep breathing — belly breathing— and why and how to incorporate this ridiculously simple and effective tool into your life every day.

When we are scared or stressed, our breathing naturally becomes shallow and rapid as we move into a fight-or-flight stress response. This is GREAT if you're being chased by a bear, but becomes inefficient and dangerous when our bodies respond that way to everyday stressors at work or home (looking at you, times I have to call customer service for any reason). The effects of chronic stress on our physical and emotional health are myriad and, um, is "horrifying" too stressful a word to use here? Yes? Ok, let's just go with "not great."

Managing stress is essential for anyone who wants to be healthy, but if we have a proclivity for anxiety or depression or any underlying physical ailments, coping with stress is an even greater necessity. To protect our health to function as our best selves in the world, we need to let our brains know that we're not actually in bear-attack-level danger, and to switch from the cortisol-soaked sympathetic nervous system to the rest-and-digest chill mode of the parasympathetic nervous system. (FYI, there are many ways to manage stress and regulate our neurochemistry — yoga, cardiovascular exercise, gratitude journaling, time in nature, meditation, connection, etc. — but today we're just focusing on belly breathing.)

Here's how to do it:

  • Lie on your back on the floor/a yoga mat
  • Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, filling your belly as deeply as you can. If you're doing it right, you'll feel the hand on your belly lift and the hand on your chest remain basically the same
  • Hold the breath until you feel a need to exhale
  • Exhale deeply through pursed lips, making a big WHOOSH sound, feeling your stomach deflate with the out breath
  • Repeat

Do this for 5-10 minutes at a time, 3-4 times per day — I like to recommend when you get up in the morning, on your lunch break/at the end of your work day, and before bed. As you learn what being really relaxed feels like, you can start noticing when you're moving out of a relaxed state and stress mode (signs include stressful thoughts, body tension/physical distress, feelings of overwhelm, frustration or anxiety), and then take a few deep belly breaths to get back on track. Tech tip: If you have an Apple Watch, you can use the Mindfulness app to set a deep breathing timer for 5 minutes and even schedule reminders on a daily basis (you can also adjust the number of breaths per minute in your Watch app, if you choose). Give it a try and notice how you feel!