Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief and Pain Control

Breathing is one of our most fundamental life functions, but it is so natural that most of us almost never think about it. That, however, should change as most people breathe inefficiently in shallow breaths that limit the amount of oxygen that is inhaled.

While this is a disservice for any of us, it is especially problematic for those dealing with stress or chronic pain. Although respiration is primarily about delivering oxygen to our cells, there is considerably more to it that can positively affect our health.

A Closer Look at Breathing

At its most basic, breathing is the intake and expulsion of air so that oxygen may be exchanged for carbon dioxide in our lungs. However, improper breathing technique can have far-reaching impacts on energy levels, focus and concentration, detoxifying, and relaxation.

Unfortunately, when we experience pain, it is natural to unconsciously hold our breath. For people with chronic pain this becomes a pattern of shallow breathing that can starve our cells of much-needed oxygen and contribute to worsening pain symptoms.

Stress, whether brought on by ongoing pain or the rigors of modern life, can change our bodies so that optimized breathing becomes more difficult to achieve. One of the most troublesome ways stress impacts our breathing is that it inhibits diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, which is essential for lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Diaphragmatic breathing also promotes theta brain waves which are foundational for restful sleep that promotes healing.

Research shows that diaphragmatic breathing can reduce the “fight or flight” response that comes with stress. Without proper breathing techniques, you could begin to experience hyperventilation, which is rapid, shallow breathing, dizziness or fatigue.

Chest Breathing vs. Stomach Breathing

For people struggling with anxiety or chronic pain, it is important to differentiate between chest breathing and abdominal breathing. Chest breathing involves primarily the upper lobes of the lungs without much involvement of the abdomen. This kind of respiration is often characterized by short and quick breaths that deliver only a minimal amount of oxygen.

Abdominal breathing, on the other hand, utilizes your entire lung capacity to fully oxygenate you. The diaphragm applies a great deal of negative pressure to fully inflate the lungs. This kind of breathing is slow and deep, delivering much more oxygen than chest breathing. 

If you continue to practice deep breathing, you should notice that it becomes more habitual. This is a result of your diaphragm becoming stronger. You can further improve your diaphragm strength by practicing deep breathing with weights on your stomach.

As you become more accustomed to deep breathing, you should notice that you are more relaxed. Deep breathing activates the hypothalamus which in turn produces hormones that lower heart rate and blood pressure, thereby counteracting the effects of stress. The hypothalamus also plays an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system which offsets the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system.

Some Improved Breathing Techniques for Stress and Pain

It may take some time to improve your breathing patterns, but eventually it will happen if you continue to use one or more of the following techniques.

  • Diaphragmatic breathing—you should practice diaphragmatic breathing every day to relieve stress and help manage pain symptoms. Start by finding a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Try to relax the muscles in your abdomen and then slowly breathe in through your nose. You should feel your belly tighten and compress. As you exhale, you should feel your diaphragm loosen and expand.
  • Box breathing—this form of paced breathing begins with exhaling while counting to four. Then hold your lungs without air for a count of four. As you then inhale count to four. Finally, hold the air for a count of four.
  • Lion’s breath—this breathing technique is intended to help relax your facial and jaw muscles while improving cardiovascular function. Assume a seated position on the floor with your hands on your knees or the floor. First spread your fingers as far apart as possible, then inhale through your nose. Open your mouth as wide as possible and stick out your tongue, curling it down towards your chin. Exhale forcefully through your mouth while making an “ha” sound. Breathe normally for a few repetitions, then repeat the exercise.
  • Mindful breathing—taken from mindfulness that focuses on the present, this breathing technique requires you to focus on a sound or phrase that you repeat silently as you breathe in and out.
  • Alternate nostril breathing—take a comfortable seated position, then inhale and exhale. Then close off your right nostril with one finger, and inhale through your left nostril. Close off your left nostril with your left hand, while removing your right hand. Exhale through your right nostril. Repeat the procedure while alternating sides for inhalation and exhalation.
  • 4-7-8 breathing—this technique is known as a natural sedative for the nervous system. Begin by pressing the gums just behind your upper front teeth with your tongue. Then exhale all of the air in your lungs while making a whoosh sound. Then shut your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of four. Then hold your breath for a count of seven, followed by exhaling through your mouth for a count of eight.
  • Resonance breathing—while lying down and eyes closed, gently inhale through your nose for 6 seconds. Gently exhale for 6 seconds. After repeating this technique for up to 10 minutes, you should be more relaxed and less anxious.

Not all of these breathing exercises may prove effective for you, so you should try out as many as possible until you find one that works for you. Although breathing exercises can provide profound benefits for people suffering from anxiety or pain, you should approach them with realistic expectations; they should be considered only one tool in an array of therapeutic options. If you continue to suffer from severe anxiety or pain, consult with a health care provider.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.