Breathing Strategies for Relaxation

By August 1, 2023August 3rd, 2023No Comments
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The Nervous System

Our ​Sympathetic​ nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response when it senses a threat or if there is stress. This leads to feelings of stress/anxiety and causes increased heart rate and muscle tension. Sometimes our bodies can get stuck in this “fight or flight” response, leading to a constant feeling of stress and anxiety. This can be common in individuals who have experienced trauma, such as a car accident. Unfortunately, when our bodies are stuck in the “fight or flight” response, it can have a negative impact on things like sleep, cognition, and pain.

On the other hand, our ​Parasympathetic ​nervous system leads to a sense of calm when activated. It is also known as the “rest and digest” system. The system is typically activated when there is no threat or stress.

Breathing & The Nervous System

  • When we breathe ​in, the ​sympathetic ​nervous system is activated.
  • When we breathe ​out, the ​parasympathetic ​nervous system is activated. In other words, when we breathe in our bodies tense up, and when we breathe out, we are releasing all of those tensions, leading to a sense of calm. In fact, if our body is tense, our brain can sense it and will activate a stress response. So, by performing breathing exercises, we actively calm the body and tell our brain that it does not need to activate the stress response.

Breathing Techniques

Diaphragmatic breathing/Belly breathing

  • Lay down with a pillow under your head and knees to get comfortable.
  • Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
  • Inhale- slowly breathe in through your nose and bring the air toward your stomach. The stomach should push upward against the hand and your chest should remain still.
  • Exhale- slowly breathe out through pursed lips. Let the stomach move downward and continue to have your chest remain still.
  • Try to repeat for at least ​two​ minutes.
Breathing Strategies


  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath in for 4 seconds
  • Breathe out slowly through your nose for 4 seconds
  • Hold your lungs empty for 4 seconds
Breathing Strategies 2

4,7,8 Breathing

  • Breathe in for 4 seconds
  • Hold air in lungs for 7 seconds
  • Breathe out for 8 seconds
  • Repeat for a maximum of 3 more times

**The longer exhale helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help lead to a sense of calm.

Breathing Strategies 4

Important Notes:

  • There are many different breathing strategies-​ Not all will be effective for you so try to find a strategy or two that works best for you.
  • Breathing takes practice- ​think of breathing like the gym: the more you practice the stronger you will get, which will make breathing exercises easier.

Additional Resources:


  • Derochie, A. (2020, October 20). ​Breathing: Why you should teach breathing and how to do it! [​ Webinar]. Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists.
  • ts/day-three/biofeedback-exercises-for-stress-2—fernances-j.pdf
  • do-it