Relax Breathing – Techniques and Benefits

By John Shin, MD

Relax Breathing Techniques (also known as Relaxation Breathing and Relaxed Breathing) can be an effective coping skill and a basic form of meditation. Relax breathing can be a successful manner of calming oneself when under stress. It is simple, but still requires practice to ensure proper execution. There are numerous forms of breathing applications and methods, but this article will focus mainly on basic breathing techniques which are easy to learn and execute.

The very basic of all relax breathing techniques involves taking a breath through the nose, as if smelling a rose; then breathing out through the mouth, as if blowing on a dandelion flower or blowing out a candle. In the basic technique, it is helpful to count one’s breath and focus just on the breathing. One can count with the fingers by tapping on a surface or by touching the thumb first by itself and then using the other fingers. To ensure one is effectively doing relaxing breathing, one should limit breaths to a 3-5 count through the nose and out through the mouth. When more practiced and more advanced using this breathing technique, one will simply be able to count breaths silently.

There are four other common relax breathing techniques to help with calming and managing stress. Practice each one and use the one which is a best fit for you for calming and stabilizing when under stress.

The first technique is the box technique, also known as the four-square breathing method.  This involves taking equal count number of breaths through the nose and out through the mouth using the count of four. Inhaling and exhaling are done at the same pace.  A pattern of four inhales and exhales is considered one circuit.  One can repeat the circuits for 4-5 minutes for the best effect.

For those people who tend to hyperventilate, the second technique is often helpful.  This is often referred to as the box technique with a hold.  One holds their breath for an equal number of counts, along with the breathing in and exhaling. This technique involves inhaling through the nose for 4 counts; then holding for a count of 4; and then exhaling for a count of 4 through the mouth. Repeat the circuit several times for the best effect.

The third technique is slow breathing and it involves imitating the breathing one normally does, such as taking fewer breaths through the nose and more breaths through the mouth. This technique involves taking 3 count breaths (inhale) through the nose and taking 5 count breaths (exhale) through the mouth.

The fourth technique can also be helpful for people who tend to hyperventilate. In this slow breathing with a hold method, one holds their breath between slow breaths. This technique involves inhaling through the nose for a slow count of 3, holding the breath for 4 counts, and then exhaling through the mouth for 5 slow counts.

Each of these four basic breathing exercises can be easy to learn, but they take practice. Each of these methods tend to shift the nervous system to a more restful state, lowering blood pressure and heart rate.  They are helpful in calming oneself when anxious, agitated, or when feeling overwhelmed.

There is a slightly more advanced relax breathing technique that involves focusing on a phrase during the breathing exercise to help one settle down and can simultaneously improve a person’s mood. Repeating positive phases and affirmations to oneself can enhance one’s mood in conjunction with doing a breathing exercise. Using the basic breathing techniques, when breathing in through the nose, think “I will feel better and better”.  Then when exhaling out through the mouth, think “each and every day”.  This is known as a positive affirmation meditation.  It can be helpful to make a list of positive affirmations to use.

Another example of this technique would be listing all the people who you love and who love you back. For example, when breathing in through the nose, think “I love my spouse” and then when exhaling out though the mouth, think “my spouse loves me”.  This technique is called the love meditation combined with relax breathing. You can make a list of those you love and who love you back.

In addition to relax breathing, one can also do an ABC meditation. This involves making a list of people or things one loves and that love in return with the aid of the alphabet. The list can include animals or pets, people, places or things you like to do. For example, while breathing in through the nose think, “I love Antelope”; and then when exhaling think, “Antelope love me”.  Use all the letters of the alphabet to create your list.

One should use these breathing techniques when first feeling signs of stress and strain, to settle down prior to sleep, or just before a stressful situation. Simply practice, be mindful, and get help if needed. There are certain times when just doing coping skills alone are not enough to create calm and a sense of stability. One may need the assistance of a mental health professional.