Types of Breathing Exercises

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on July 02, 2023
3 min read

Breathing seems simple. After all, everyone is constantly breathing to stay alive. However, taking the time to breathe a little better can offer surprising health benefits, like easing stress and anxiety. Here are three breathing exercises that can help you relax and take back control of your breath.

The simplest breathing exercise is pursed lip breathing. This exercise focuses on how you manage the breathing process itself. By controlling how you breathe, you can release any air that’s trapped in your lungs and keep your airways open longer. This makes breathing easier and more comfortable.

Here’s how to do pursed lip breathing wherever you are:

  • Step one: Relax your face, neck, and shoulders.
  • Step two: Breathe in slowly through your nose.
  • Step three: “Purse” your lips into a small, round shape, like you’re going to blow out a candle.
  • Step four: Slowly breathe out through your mouth, and focus on making your exhale longer than your inhale. Don’t try to force air out, let it release naturally 

‌You can do pursed lip breathing anywhere, whenever you feel short of breath or tired. Practicing several times a day can help make this style of breathing a habit.

Paced breathing is a technique where you focus on how often and how fast you breathe. Conditions like anxiety and stress can cause you to breathe more quickly, which is known as hyperventilation. By controlling how quickly you breathe and breathing purposefully, you can reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.

This is a slightly more complex version of pursed lip breathing. You’re controlling the length of time you spend inhaling and exhaling to guarantee that the exhale is the same or longer than the inhale.

There are several different “counts” for paced breathing. “Square” breathing involves four counts of four, while 4-7-8 breathing involves counting to four, then seven, then eight.

Here’s how to do paced breathing with two separate counts:

  • Step one: Breathe out until your lungs feel empty but not uncomfortable.
  • Step two: Breathe in for a count of four. You can count as quickly or as slowly as you’d like, but try to fill your lungs to a full, comfortable level.
  • Step three: If you’re doing “square” breathing, hold your breath for a count of four. For 4-7-8 breathing, hold for a count of seven. Keep the speed of your counting consistent with your count during the inhale.
  • Step four: Exhale for a count of four for square breathing or eight for 4-7-8 breathing. Empty your lungs entirely over that count.
  • Step five (optional): If you’re doing square breathing, leave your lungs empty for a count of four.

‌Repeat this process as many times as you want, or until you feel calmer. It may take time to find the counting speed that makes you comfortable, and that’s okay. Over time, you can begin to count more slowly to calm yourself further.

Also known as “diaphragmatic breathing” because of the muscles involved, belly breathing helps you get more air in slower, deeper breaths. Just like stress and anxiety can make your breathing speed up, they can also change how deeply you breathe.

People with anxiety breathe higher in their lungs, which is known as “chest breathing”. By focusing on belly breathing, you expand your lungs deeper to take in more air. This helps to ease the “breathless” feeling and can help physical symptoms of stress and worry.

Here’s how to activate your diaphragm and start belly breathing:

  • Step one: Sit upright in a chair, stand with good posture, or lie flat on a solid surface. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. 
  • Step two: Breathe in slowly through your nose, and focus on keeping your chest still. Instead, your belly should expand. Breathe in until you feel a comfortable stretch.
  • Step three: Breathe out through your mouth, feeling your belly relax under your hand.

‌You can combine belly breathing with paced breathing if you want. Take a few belly breaths at a time at first so you can learn how it feels. You may notice that you feel lightheaded if you’re not used to breathing so deeply. If that occurs, simply breathe normally and sit down until the feeling passes.