Ease anxiety and stress: Take a (belly) breather

Matthew Solan

Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Quick: think of three things that make you feel anxious or stressed. Most of us have no trouble reeling off answers. And people who suffer from anxiety disorders — such as social anxiety, phobias, or generalized anxiety — may have a variety of triggers that send anxiety soaring. While belly breathing alone can’t fix deep-seated anxieties, it works well as a tool to help ease anxiety and garden-variety stress. Regularly engaging in belly breathing (or trying the mini strategy described below) can help you turn a fight-or-flight response into a relaxation response that’s beneficial to your health.

How should you breathe?

You take up to 23,000 breaths per day, so make sure you do it right.

How should you breathe? Like a sleeping child, says Dr. Katherine Rosa of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. “If you ever watch children sleep, they all breathe from the belly and not the chest. This relaxed state is the more normal way to breathe.”

Yet most people are chest breathers, which is how we react to stress. When we sense a threat, our fight-or-flight response automatically kicks in. We breathe at a rapid pace to suck in extra oxygen, to fuel our heart and muscles so we can flee the danger.

Of course, we don’t need our fight-or-flight response to escape predators anymore. Our threats now come from the stress of emails, personal confrontations, daily news, and traffic jams.

“Your fight-or-flight response is meant to be a short-term reaction that comes and goes,” says Dr. Rosa. “But today, we are surrounded by so many stressors that we constantly stay in this state of tension. It doesn’t turn off, and we often don’t even notice it.” The result: we have become a nation of chest breathers.

Feel it in your belly

One way to change our reaction to modern stress is to learn how to belly breathe instead of chest breathe. Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the head down the neck, through the chest, and to the colon. This activates your relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure and lowering stress levels.

If you are not familiar with belly breathing, try this exercise: sit in a chair, lean forward, and place your elbows on your knees. Then breathe naturally. “This position forces you to breathe from the belly, so you know what the sensation feels like,” says Dr. Rosa.

A mini strategy to ease anxiety and stress

A strategy to teach yourself mindful belly breathing is to practice what Dr. Rosa calls “the mini.” Here’s what you do: every time you feel stressed, simply take three slow and controlled deep belly breaths. “It’s a simple act, but this interrupts the fight-or-flight response and puts it on pause,” says Dr. Rosa. “Over time, belly breathing can buffer your resistance to your fight-or-flight response, so you are not as sensitive to stress triggers.”

To help you be more mindful about your breathing pattern, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. “You want the chest hand to be still and the belly hand to move out like you are blowing up a balloon,” says Dr. Rosa.

She suggests practicing belly breathing throughout the day, like once every hour or up to 10 to 15 times per day. “As it becomes more of a habit, you can automatically engage belly breathing whenever you face a stressful event.”


  1. Sundus

    It is an absolutely an amazing way to feel vibrant and vitality..It not only divert our concentration but also stimulate sacral..solar energy centres which are located below.and above.umblicus..

  2. Bob

    This is probably the cheapest health hack one can do. Breathing is talked about in physical training and meditation. Asthmatics do better if they learn to breath properly. Blood ph or the acid base regulation and waste removal involves breathing.


  3. chris

    “Of course, we don’t need our fight-or-flight response to escape predators anymore.” Really?

    Not so fast. In the northern Rockies and some of the Northern Cascade mountains of the US and all the mountains in Alberta, BC and the North of Canada, humans are not the top predators. We follow Grizzly Bears and lions/cougers making us #3 toward the top of the food chain! These lovely creatures make hiking, mountain biking and horse riding a new experience in superiority.

    And don’t forget sharks encountered when surfing, paddle boarding, diving etc. etc. out here in the Middle of the Pacific Sea. . . . Come for a visit and enjoy!

  4. Peter Ewert

    Very informative and helpful as always.Your articles are very helpful and I take them seriously and try to incorperate into my life! THANKYOU!

  5. Richard M. Klein , MD

    I disagree about the importance of belly breathing. Slow, deep breathing with careful attention to and awareness of the breathing process is extremely relaxing and stress relieving, whether it be belly breathing or chest breathing . The type of chest breathing which is associated with anxiety is rapid chest breathing, not slow chest breathing. Slow, deep breathing into the chest is a great source of anxiety relief, and this can stimulate the vagus nerve just as belly breathing can.

    • Elizabeth H.

      I do a lot of work with the gut-brain connection and breathing. I find opening up breathing from the belly up to the chest the best way for people to connect everything. The exhale is usually easier for people to move through the centers then the inhale.

      After many years teaching breathing my belief is the best result is from opening both centers and getting the rhythm going.

  6. Michaelle Edwards

    Of course we should not breathe with the upper respiratory muscles or just the upper ribs since that can illicit a sympathetic nervous system response. However we also are not designed to breathe with the belly by pushing the abdomen forward when inhaling. The lungs are encased in the rib cage. The primary of respiration, the diaphragm is attached to the inner ribs and spine and does not descend any lower than the bottom of the rib cage on inhalation. The liver and stomach are in the belly or abdominal region below the rib cage. By pushing the abdomen forward, one is in fact creating a shortening of the abdomen and further restricting rib cage movement. The lower ribs in the costal arch region should expand sideways on inhalation rather than pushing the belly forward. I have helped thousands of people retrain the breathing apparatus including those who have been instructed to breathe with the belly pushing the abdomen forward. The result of this type of belly breathing is organs pushed forward of the torso. I think that in the effort to stop people from slouching and just using the upper neck muscles, people have been told to take the breathing process lower in the body but by initiating with the abdomen in preference to the ribs, there are other issues that arise. See http://www.yogalign.com

Commenting has been closed for this post.