Breath meditation: A great way to relieve stress

Published: April, 2014

Simply observing the breath can damp down stress and open a door to a more healthy and mindful lifestyle.

Psychological stress has a devastating effect on health. Research shows that people with heart disease do worse over time if they don't control stress, and stress seems to be associated with a higher risk for cancer. Stress is strongly associated with poorer memory and more aches and pains. However, reducing stress helps you sleep more restfully and control high blood pressure.

One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to simply focus your attention on your breath. It's a form of "entry level" meditation that anyone can do. You'll notice an immediate sense of relaxation that could help protect your health over time.

If you enjoy it, breath meditation can be a gateway to a broader practice of "mindfulness," in which you learn to accept and appreciate what comes in life and stop fighting your own thoughts and feelings. "Many people take up mindfulness practices thinking they'd like to relax more, but where it leads is a very different approach to life and its inevitable challenges," says Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

Getting started

Simple breathing meditation requires only that you find a comfortable position in a place with minimal distractions. You may sit, stand, or walk—whichever you prefer. Many people find the sitting position to be best. Two ingredients are required to make breath meditation work:

  • a sustained focus for your mind such as the repetition of a sound, word, phrase, or movement

  • allowing everyday thoughts to come and go as you focus on the repetition.

The mind can be a noisy, busy place. As you try to focus your attention, thoughts will often arise. The key is to not get annoyed or impatient with your unquiet mind. Acknowledge the thoughts and let your attention slip from them. "Learning to focus attention and relax is a skill," Dr. Siegel says. "As with any skill, your ability to focus and relax will improve with practice."

Many people find it helpful to start by focusing on their breath, and silently count inhalations and exhalations: In (one), out (two), in (three), and so on. This gives you something to focus on besides intrusive thoughts.

It also helps to create a meditation practice by doing it at the same time every day. To start, try for 10 minutes in the morning and evening; then gradually increase to 20 or 30 minutes. Of course, you are also free to initiate a session of breath meditation any time you feel stressed out.

Gateway to mindfulness

Meditation is a good way to increase mindfulness in your whole life. Mindfulness is a concept that sprang from Buddhism originally, although its fundamental principles are shared by many spiritual traditions, philosophies, and religions. Mindfulness simply means the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment.

"It is intended to help us come to a healthy relationship with the inevitabilities of the difficulties of life, which is much more profound than relaxation training," Dr. Siegel says. "These practices are designed to train the brain and the mind to embrace life as it actually is. When we can do that, we wind up being much less stressed. Ultimately, most of our stress comes from fighting reality."

Breath awareness meditation


  • Find an alert, comfortable position on a chair, floor cushion, or bench.

  • Sit with your spine erect.


  • Bring your attention to the natural sensations of the breath in the body.

  • Don't try to control the breath. It doesn't matter if it is short and shallow or long and deep.


  • Try to follow the breath through full cycles, from the beginning of an inhalation to the end of an exhalation, and then on to the next cycle.


  • Thoughts may enter the mind. This is natural. Simply allow them to arise and pass.

  • If a chain of thought hijacks your attention and you lose awareness of the breath, gently return your attention to the sensations of breathing.


Help to get started

You can explore mindfulness in many ways. Here are some easy ones:

  • Sign up for a formal course in mindfulness meditation.

  • Get a book on meditation, such as Dr. Siegel's The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems (The Guilford Press, 2009).

  • Find a meditation center near where you live.

  • Buy guided meditation CDs or download digital recordings from iTunes and other online services.

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