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A Simple Exercise to Break the Cycle of Stress and Anxiety

A Simple Exercise to Break the Cycle of Stress and Anxiety

A young woman doing deep breathing exercises to relieve stress and anxiety

Between work, friends, family, and other obligations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed sometimes. Stress and anxiety can become so bad that it seems like every healthy coping skill you know goes right out the window. This might lead you to shut down, get angry, or avoid the thing that’s scaring you, even if it might be the best thing for you in the long run.

Although these reactions are completely natural, understanding how to deal with stress and anxiety can help you avoid making an already-hard situation even worse.

Luckily, there’s a relatively simple skill you can use to break the cycle of stress and anxiety, giving you back your composure in tough situations: deep breathing.

The Key to Stress & Anxiety Relief: Deep Breathing

I know what you’re thinking; you’ve tried deep breathing, and it didn’t work. While it might sound simple enough to just take in a deep breath, there’s a bit more to it than just inhaling and exhaling. If done properly, deep breathing can break the cycle of stress and anxiety, helping your body calm down during and after high-stress times.

Let’s walk through how proper deep breathing can help you control your stress and anxiety.

How Deep Breathing Helps Your Body Relax

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “fight, flight, or freeze.” It’s your body’s natural reaction to dangerous situations. When you perceive a threat, you have to make a fast choice to either attack, run, or hide from danger.

In this state, your sympathetic nervous system increases your heartbeat, shallows your breathing, and dilates your pupils. This sends more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles for either fighting or running, and gives you tunnel vision to focus on the imminent threat.

When you’re in danger, this reaction helps you to survive. Once you get to safety, your parasympathetic nervous system turns on, which restores normal breathing, vision, and blood flow to help you calm down.

Unfortunately for people who constantly feel stressed, this cooldown period never comes. Your nervous system stays in a perpetual state of fight, flight, or freeze, never letting you relax. This is the physical manifestation of anxiety in your body. Luckily, there’s a way to interrupt this cycle and remind your nervous system that everything is okay, the danger has passed, and it can calm down.

When you practice deep breathing, it tells your body that there’s no longer a threat. You’re basically telling your brain there’s time to breathe, so the lion (so to speak) is clearly no longer chasing you. It’s safe to calm down and stop the flight, fight, or freeze reaction.

Are You Deep Breathing Correctly?

True deep breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing. As the name might suggest, it’s when you breathe using your diaphragm instead of your chest. Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to take deeper breaths and really interrupt that stress and anxiety cycle, allowing your brain to calm down.

Diaphragmatic breathing doesn’t always come naturally, so here’s an easy test to tell if you’re breathing correctly.

Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a breath in a way that feels normal to you and release it. Breath in and out normally and take note of which hand rises more. If the hand on your belly rises more, good job! You’re deep breathing correctly.

If the hand on your chest rises more, it means your breathing is shallow. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you; it takes practice to learn how to deep breathe properly. Just try some deep breathing exercises to see if you can’t get the hand on your belly to rise more than the one on your chest.

Deep Breathing Exercise to Try

Deep breathing comes from your belly, not your chest. To help you achieve diaphragmatic breathing, here’s a simple exercise to try out.

Pretend there’s a balloon in your belly just underneath the base of your ribs. Take a deep breath through your nose and imagine pulling the air into the balloon. Think about how much it expands, which might not be much at first. Then, exhale through your mouth and feel the balloon slowly deflate. Get out as much of the air as you can.

  1. Take a deep breath through your nose.
  2. Hold your breath at the top.
  3. Slowly exhale through your mouth.

Now, repeat the exercise a couple times. Try to make the balloon expand a little more each time. You might feel a bit dizzy after so many deep breaths, but don’t worry; it’s completely normal. It’ll eventually stop as you learn to breathe deeply naturally.

Reset Your Default by Practicing Deep Breathing Exercises

When you’re stressed or anxious, it’s not always possible to think about deep breathing. That’s why it’s important to make deep breathing your default. That way, you’ll automatically do it whenever you need to calm down.

The best way to reset your default breathing is with practice. Give yourself reminders to practice deep breathing exercises throughout the day:

  • Set a daily reminder on your phone.
  • Practice deep breathing exercises every night before bed.
  • Put post-it notes around the house and practice whenever you see them.

If you continue to practice deep breathing, it’ll become your default way of breathing. Then, you won’t even have to think about it whenever you feel stressed or anxious. Your body will just automatically do it, helping you calm down naturally.

Related: How to Start to Self-Care: Six Simple and Effective Tips to Start Your Best Self-Care Plan

Alleviate Stress and Anxiety with Deep Breathing

There are tons of exercises to help reduce stress and anxiety, but deep breathing is by far the simplest and most effective.

Work on filling up that balloon in your belly until it becomes your default way of breathing. Whenever you feel stressed or anxious, practice your deep breathing to break the fight, flight, or freeze response and calm your body back down.

With a little practice, deep breathing can help you break the cycle of stress and anxiety, setting you free to experience life. I know how much it’s helped me over the years, and I can’t wait for it to help you too! 

If you’d like to learn more about how to relieve anxiety with deep breathing, watch my video, here:


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  6. Della


    July 7, 2022 at 10:55 am -

    Appreciate the recommendation. Will try it out.

    1. Krystal Mazzola

      Krystal Mazzola

      September 1, 2022 at 4:59 pm -

      Hi Della, thanks so much for your comment! I hope the tip was helpful 🙂

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