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When you’re trying to keep calm under stress, the common phrase, “relax lah, take a deep breath!” is good advice to follow.

You probably know that stress affects the way we breathe.

When we’re anxious, we typically draw quick, shallow breaths as our body prepares itself to fight or run away from danger: whether you’re facing a tiger or feeling kan cheong over a tight deadline, your body views both as stressful threats.

But believe it or not, the relationship between stress and breathing patterns could also go the other way. How we breathe can also affect the way we feel, and the way we handle stressful situations.

Let’s check out how deep breathing helps use relax, and learn some deep breathing techniques we can use in times of need.

Belly Breathe for Quick Relief

Remember the last time you ran for the bus? After you boarded, your breathing was probably quick and shallow as you tried to catch your breath.

That’s because you were breathing from your upper chest and shoulders — like how we breathe when we’re stressed out and anxious.

Deep breathing is a quick measure we can take to help us calm down. Why does it work?

When we take deep, slow breaths — also called abdominal or belly breathing — we’re signalling the brain to relax. This calms us down and reduces our stress response, the feeling of being out of breath.

When we are more relaxed, we can then turn on our rational brain, and think of solutions to our problems.

After all, you can panic and run away from a tiger but you can’t run away from your boss’s wrath if you miss that important deadline.

Sounds good? Let’s learn how to belly breathe!

Practise Deep Breathing

  1. Find a comfortable place where you can sit or lie down — bed, sofa, yoga mat, etc.

  2. Take a few normal breaths. Notice how you breathe: do you lift your shoulders? Does only your upper chest area expand and contract? Those are signs of shallow breathing.

  3. Place a hand on your abdomen (belly), just below your ribcage.

  4. Now try to take a slow, deep breath through your nose, while keeping your shoulders relaxed. You should feel and see your chest and abdomen expanding with the air intake.

  5. Not sure how it works? Observe someone deep in sleep: their breathing is slow, steady, and you can see their abdomens (belly) rising and falling as they breathe in and out.

  6. Next, breathe out slowly through your nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. Let all the air out and feel your abdomen contracting.

Watch this video for a visual guide to deep breathing:

Deep Breathing Technique

Don’t worry if you can’t get it right the first few tries, it takes time to correct lifelong breathing habits. Practise deep breathing often: in the shower, at your desk, just before you go to bed... You'll get better!

The next time you’re in a situation where you feel the stress building, take a pause, close your eyes, and practise deep breathing.

It’ll help you clear your head and calm you down so you have a chance to think and collect yourself to work out a solution.