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Stress

Can Five Deep Breaths Really Relieve Stress?

Try this one-minute relaxation trick for a healthy brain break.

Key points

  • There are some simple techniques that can help relax you when you're feeling stressed.
  • One example is three-by-five breathing.
  • Building in just a few minutes each day for easy breathing exercises can make a big difference.
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Source: NIKON D7000/PxHere

As someone who doesn’t like to meditate, I’m always on the lookout for simple stress-management techniques that can lead to a calmer mind and a healthier body—preferably right now! (Not that I’m impatient about it....)

One-minute stress relief—too good to be true?

Unbelievably, there really are a few easy relaxation techniques that don’t require hard work or hours of commitment and practice. For example, I’ve previously written about the amazing “Inner Smile” technique. I’ve now found another quick-fix relaxation technique in “three-by-five breathing,” suggested by author Brad Stulberg in his book, The Practice of Groundedness. This technique sounded easy enough that I was willing to give it a try. It's effective enough that I find myself still using it on a daily basis after about six months.

The technique is as simple as the name—take five deep breaths three times a day. Sounds like a doctor’s prescription, doesn’t it? Except that you don’t need a prescription for this method of stress relief.

But why do you need relief from stress in the first place?

Why stress about stress?

The unpleasant sensations of being “stressed out”—tension, shallow breathing, anxious or worried thought patterns, clenched hands—are reason enough to stock up on stress-management tools. But there is an increasing body of research that also points to the damaging effects of low-grade, chronic stress on the mind and body.

For example, everyday stress can increase the risk of certain health conditions, such as asthma, heart attack, stroke, ulcers, and higher blood pressure. As reported by Hannah Seo in the New York Times, new research indicates that stress is also implicated in the aging of the immune system. Moreover, chronic stress contributes to inflammation, a culprit in numerous chronic illnesses. For many people, chronic stress also can increase the risk for mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

For balance, I’d like to point out that some types of stress have a positive side. For example, nervousness can pump you up before a performance, giving you a boost of energy to meet the challenge. Stress can also contribute to your personal growth by giving you confidence that you have the resources to cope with life’s demands. The “fight-or-flight” response is a stress reaction that Mother Nature has given us to save life and limb in a genuine emergency. Unfortunately, many of us interpret the annoying events of modern life as an emergency, keeping us in a constant state of high tension.

But whether you are experiencing “good stress” or harmful stress, your brain still needs breaks from the low-level stress that can leave you mentally frazzled and physically worn out. The “relaxation response” can counter the stress response, according to decades of research by stress pioneers like Herbert Benson. That’s why brief relaxation techniques can be so helpful. And that’s where the “three-by-five” comes in.

How:

Take one slow, deep breath. Repeat four more times. Continue as desired.

That's it! That's the exercise. But to make it even more effective, try these tips:

1. Pause a little at the “top” of the inhale. Exhale. Pause slightly at the “bottom” of the exhale.

2. Check yourself to make sure you are breathing from your abdomen as well as from your lungs—“belly breathing” is more likely to trigger the relaxation response.

3. To help yourself slow down, count mentally from one to five for each inhale and do the same for each exhale.

4. Try "five-finger breathing." If like me, you might get distracted and forget what breath you are on, a great option is to let your fingers do the counting. One helpful method is "five-finger breathing," described here:

“Hold one hand in front of you, fingers spread. Now, slowly trace the outside of your hand with the index finger on your other hand, breathing in when you trace up a finger, and out when you trace down. Move up and down all five fingers. When you’ve traced your whole hand, reverse direction and do it again.”

Before you know it, you’ve done two rounds of breathing. This practice has been popularized by Dr. Judson Brewer, author of Unwinding Anxiety. The reason it works, he says, is that using your sight, your sense of touch, and your mind all at once leaves little room in your brain for anxiety and for negative thoughts.

When:

A few ideas:

1. Tie three-by-five breathing to established habits. For example, Stulberg practices it before breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

2. Teach yourself to use your emotional tension as a trigger to practice three-by-five breathing. Catch yourself getting tense, stop what you are doing, and use the technique. Just one minute to a more relaxed you.

3. Use a combination of 1 and 2. I have a long-standing habit of starting my workday in my old easy chair. I make a to-do list and think about my priorities for the day. To this routine, I’ve added one round of three-by-five breathing (technique 1). When I find myself plagued by my own annoying mental chatter either during the day or night, I start another round of three-by-five breathing (technique 2).

Where:

Anywhere. The waiting room of a doctor’s office. Washing dishes. Walking. On hold with customer service. Anywhere.

In a nutshell: Small technique, big benefits

One to five-minute brain breaks like three-by-five breathing may not seem like much. But stress has a full-body impact. So, even toning down your reaction to stress just a little could have powerful effects, including these: slower aging of the immune system, a sharper mind, lower blood pressure, less anxiety or depression, more relaxation, better sleep, and less risk of chronic illness.

Maybe the best benefit is knowing that you can pause, breathe, and regain a sense of well-being in just one minute.

© Meg Selig, 2022. All rights reserved.

References

Stulberg, B. (2021). The Practice of Groundedness. NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

Parker-Pope, T. May 24, 2021. "Wellness Challenge: How to Meditate On the Go." nytimes.com.

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