How breathing can help you to beat stress

Stress does something very powerful to our bodies. The process – known usually

as the ‘Fight or flight response’ involves a number of elements. First there is the

perception of a threat. The most obvious form of threat is a physical one –

someone runs at you in the street brandishing a knife, or being in a car accident.

But many threats are in the mind. When your boss tells you that there is going to

be some restructuring and you start to worry that you might lose your job that is

a threat as real as the man in the street with a knife. Only the threat is a mental



The threat then triggers a chain reaction in the body. First of all hormones are

released into the system. Adrenaline is the one most people know about. And

these hormones then kick off a cascade of physical responses. Your heart and

your breathing speed up. Your muscles tense up and are charged with extra

energy from glucose released into the blood stream. Digestion shuts down as you

don’t need to waste energy digesting your dinner when you have a threat to deal

with. All of this causes the body to heat up.


There is one further reaction, little talked about, which is particularly important

when it comes to stress. Out of our awareness, the brain is constantly monitoring

what is going on in the body. When it notices that the body has gone into fight or

flight mode it comes to the conclusion that the threat is real and significant. It

doesn’t matter if the threat is actually because we have inflated and unrealistic

fears. The brain says we are genuinely in trouble, ratcheting up the sense of

threat in the process. Put another way, we get more stressed.


This is where an effective breathing exercise comes in. If you can learn to calm

your breathing, which has sped up as part of the fight or flight response, you are

able to send the brain a different message. As the brain senses that the body is

calming, it revises its estimate of the threat. Everything is OK. There is no need to

be worried. And so your stress reduces.


One of the most effective breathing exercises is 5/7 breathing. The process is

simple. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed for 10 minutes, loosen any

tight or uncomfortable clothing, and sit or lie. Begin by breathing in through your

nose and out through your mouth noticing the physical sensations that you

experience. Slow your breathing and then begin breathing to a rhythm which you

count in your head. Breathe in through the nose to a count of five, pause a

moment, and then breathe out through the mouth to a count of seven. If five and

seven is too difficult try four and six as your rhythm. Just ensure that your out-

breath is longer than your in-breath. And having got your rhythm going, breathe

this way for five minutes (perhaps setting a timer on your phone to help you).

5/7 breathing also needs practice. Think of it as like learning a new skill. The

more you do it the better you get at it. And the more effective it becomes in terms

of helping you to feel calm. Once you have been practicing for a few weeks you

will find that you can drop easily into this form of breathing, and that you are

able to use it at the times when you feel most stressed. You will also become

more resilient, so that you are less vulnerable to stress in the first place.


How breathing can help you to beat stress