The Power of Breathing; Managing Stress

Despite having an abundance of research and theory supporting the overwhelming positive effects of mindfulness and meditation, including lowering blood pressure, improving sleep and concentration and self-esteem (just to name a few), it can be extremely difficult to commit yourself to a regular meditation routine. With the responsibilities of work, families and children, let’s face it, most of us don’t have an extra hour to commit to silent reflection. Not to mention, sitting alone with your thoughts (and worries) when stressed does not exactly sound like an enjoyable experience… Meditation is hard! – There, I said it!

My name is Dr. Samantha Brustad, licensed psychologist and owner of As a psychologist who tries her best to practice what she preaches, I too understand the struggle to motivate and commit myself to a regular meditation practice.    I often notice my clients feel intimidated by the process or feel guilt or disappointment when they are unable to master meditation or follow through with their intention to meditate.

Here how I help my clients ease into meditation:

First and most importantly, self-compassion is key. Just like learning any new skill, it will take time, practice and patience. Feeling guilty or being hard on yourself for struggling to meditate defeats the purpose completely (& may be a strong indicator you really need this skill!)

Think: Gentle Curiosity. When learning a skill such as meditation, you must nonjudgmentally and eagerly seek to learn about the ways it makes you feel, including when you fail or struggle. Why was this hard for me? What was I afraid of? What feeling was I avoiding? What behaviors did I do to avoid? When we ask ourselves these types of questions with genuine compassion, shame decreases, defenses decrease and we are able to respond more effectively to our true needs (It makes sense it was hard for me to follow through with meditation today, every time I try to take time for myself I feel overwhelming guilt about leaving Sally with the babysitter. I know I am a good mom and I know meditation will help me be an even better mom.)

Start small and baby steps. Breathing is meditation too. If fact, it is an objective, simple behavior that you can do any time, anywhere. Breathing requires minimal time commitment and does not require you to sit alone with your loud thoughts. Breathing is universal across culture, gender and age. You can teach the same breathing exercise to your grandmother and your daughter. Finally, breathing exercises are both a preventative and “in the moment” coping skill for stress management. Meaning they have long-term effects if you complete an exercise as a part of your morning routine and offer immediate relief in situations when you are feeling overwhelmed. Once you become comfortable with breathing exercises using the steps outlined above, you will naturally expand your interest and knowledge… just watch!

Here are 4 breathing exercises you can try today to begin your meditation journey:

3-6-9 Breathing

3-6-9 breathing slows your heart rate, allowing more oxygen into the blood stream, ultimately communicating to the brain that it’s time to relax. 3-6-9 breathing can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. It can be used as a preventative AND as an “in the moment” coping skill to reduce stress and anxiety.

To do it:
1.     Inhale for 3 seconds
2.     Hold for 6 seconds
3.     Exhale slowly, for 9 seconds
4.     Notice the change
5.     Repeat

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Belly breathing can help you use your diaphragm properly. Do belly breathing exercises when you’re feeling relaxed and rested. You can practice this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes 3 to 4 times per day. When you begin you may feel tired, but over time the technique should become easier and should feel more natural.
To do it:
1.    Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow.
2.    You may place a pillow under your knees for support.
3.    Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage, allowing you to feel the movement of your diaphragm.
4.    Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand.
5.    Keep your other hand as still as possible.
6.    Exhale as you tighten your stomach muscles, keeping your upper hand completely still.
You can place a book on your abdomen to make the exercise more difficult. Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down you can increase the difficulty by trying it while sitting in a chair. You can then practice the technique while performing your daily activities.

Lion’s Breath

Lion’s breath is an energizing yoga breathing practice that is said to relieve tension in your chest and face. Runners also use a modified version of this to help regulate heart rate and I often recommend a modified version of this exercise to clients struggling with panic.

To do this:
1.    Come into a comfortable seated position. You can sit back on your heels or cross your legs.
2.    Press your palms against your knees with your fingers spread wide.
3.    Inhale deeply through your nose and open your eyes wide.
4.    At the same time, open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue, bringing the tip down toward your chin.
5.    Contract the muscles at the front of your throat as you exhale completely out through your mouth by making a long “ha” sound.
6.    You can turn your gaze to look at the space between your eyebrows or the tip of your nose.
7.    Do this breath 2 to 3 times.

Dr. Brustad’s Modified Version:
1.    Inhale deeply through your nose.
2.    At the same time, open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue, bringing the tip down toward your chin.
3.    Contract the muscles at the front of your throat as you exhale completely out through your mouth by making a long “ha” sound.
4.    Notice the decreased heart rate.
5.    Repeat.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a breathing practice for relaxation. It has been shown to enhance cardiovascular function and to lower heart rate. You may want to avoid this exercise if you’re feeling sick or congested.


To do this:
1.    Choose a comfortable seated position.
2.    Lift up your right hand toward your nose, pressing your first and middle fingers down toward your palm and leaving your other fingers extended.
3.    After an exhale, use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril.
4.    Inhale through your left nostril and then close your left nostril with your right pinky and ring fingers.
5.    Release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril.
6.    Inhale through your right nostril and then close this nostril.
7.    Release your fingers to open your left nostril and exhale through this side.
8.    This is one cycle.
9.    Continue this breathing pattern for up to 5 minutes.



All in all, the simple act of mindful breathing can have a profound impact on your mental health and quality of life. It is an easy way to begin to prioritize your needs and show yourself the compassion you need to reach your full potential.  That being said, sometimes mindfulness and self-guided activities are not enough. In these cases, I always recommend you seek the support of a licensed professional. Get started today by taking our specialized questionnaire to match with your ideal therapist in minutes.

Interested in other blog posts?

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