Reduce Stress with Mindful Breathing

“In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
– Pico Iyer –

Do you find it difficult to sit still? I do.

Under the all-important value system of Productivity, we’ve structured our lives around devices, apps, activities so we can get more of what we believe we need and want.  We’ve become ‘do-ers’, attempting to multitask and toggle between work responsibilities and home life, getting answers within seconds, and maneuvering life at warp speed. It can be thrilling at times when looking back at what was accomplished in a day. 

On the other hand, we become anxious at the thought of doing ‘nothing’ for fear that we’ll fall behind. We assume we must be DO-ing to get somewhere, as opposed to just BE-ing in order to feel a sense of accomplishment, worthy of our peers, or inherently valuable! Attention Type A’s and Enneagram 7’s, does this sound familiar!? 

Being a ‘do-er’ can become a bad habit and a severe addiction. This is why the Mindful Breathing Challenge can be one of the toughest sections of my wellness programs because it requires stillness. Constantly being on the go is like having your foot on the gas, activates your Stress Response, which prevents your body from getting enough time to ‘rest and digest’. 

Being still has awesome natural health benefits. Whether you’re taking mindful diaphragmatic breaths or just mindfully focusing on a sound, smell, taste, feeling or other, you can reduce stress, inflammation, anxiety, and even change the level of acidity in your blood.

Learn more: Is your diet acidic or alkaline?

This post is intended to explain why mindful breathing is so incredibly important to your health, how it can help control your stress response, reduce nervous system stimulation, positively impact hormones, and why it ranks up there with food, water, sleep, and exercise. The beautiful part about this is that you do NOT have to be perfect – or free up hours on end – in order to bring a breathing or mindfulness practice into your life.


An important fact of human biology – the key purpose of oxygen is to metabolize food and turn it into energy for your cells. This is the energy you use to get dressed, go to work, eat your lunch, finish projects, go for a walk, and subconsciously breathe. For this reason, oxygen is needed by every cell in your body. The byproduct/waste of this ‘cellular metabolism’ is carbon dioxide and water. And like all other wastes we know of, they must be eliminated from our bodies in order for the body to be in balance. If too much waste surrounds our cells, the cells can’t get oxygen or nutrients and could eventually die. Therefore, the waste must be eliminated (exhaled or removed through water in the form of urine or sweat or other means). 

This is also how you lose weight! You take in oxygen, it reaches your cells where metabolism occurs, the cells turn that fuel (in the form of good calories/nutrients/food – wink wink nudge nudge) into energy (to help you function and work and exercise, etc) and then the byproducts (aka waste) are released as carbon dioxide and water. This is why you need good food in your body. It makes it easy for your cells to turn it into usable energy. This is how your body was meant to function. Amazing, right?


The diagram below shows how oxygen and carbon dioxide enter and exit the body. Points 1 – 8 are all important, but I would call your attention more to 7 and 8 where things are more critical within the alveoli.


We need a healthy balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. But this balance is rare because we are not very good breathers. We are constantly on-the-go, running from one project to the next, reacting to stressors like temperature, pollution, and noise, in addition to all of the other emotional, mental, physical, nutritional stress we experience in a day. We leave very little room for our bodies to do the most innate task properly – breathing. This stress naturally escalates our breath rate.

We are shallow breathers, which means we breathe into the neck and upper back and upper lungs (creating tension and adding more stress) and not into the lower lungs (ie/the alveoli) where the real oxygen exchange can happen. Like any other area of your body, when you aren’t using it or stretching it to full capacity, the area tightens.  Shallow breathing hinders the diaphragm’s range of motion, like a muscle that is rarely used to its full potential. And the irony here is that this type of shallow breathing – this imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide – actually sends a signal to your body’s nervous system that you’re stressed. Then this becomes a cyclical stress response which becomes an unconscious habit.

We also have a hard time being still. ‘Multi-tasking’ has become an addiction. Technology helps us do things faster so we now expect or are expected to handle more at a faster pace. It can feel unnerving just doing one thing at a time. Ask yourself how often you take your phone into the bathroom to do more work. Of course when technology fails us, technology becomes an amplified source of stress.

Learn more: Is multi-tasking bad for your brain?

We don’t have any framework for understanding how being still can actually propel us forward – in health, productivity, and happiness. Productivity and this incessant urge to be constantly doing, has become a bad habit, which is yielding limited returns. So how do we break the habit. How do we find balance? 


I prefer the term “Mindful Breathing” over “Meditation” because many people get intimidated by meditation, thinking it has to look a certain way, that it has rules and restrictions, and would be hard to realistically incorporate into a busy life. But Mindful Breathing doesn’t mean you need to carve out an hour of everyday to sit on a mountain top, cross-legged, inhaling and exhaling with precision, and having complete clarity of thought.

Mindful Breathing can be applied effectively as a way to train your brain towards focus and productivity. Adding the practice of mindfully breathing can help you increase your capacity for learning, memory and can help you control your emotions. What’s more, you can practice this at different points during your day, in whatever manner is most comfortable for you.

The bottom line is that Mindful Breathing looks and feels different for everyone, and it also changes day by day. And that’s okay. 

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, non-judgmentally.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Don’t feel pressure to act or look or breathe or focus like Buddha. Simply breathe, be, and be present, non-judgmentally.

As you start to build a mindful breathing practice into your life, you might feel bored, frustrated, anxious or like you’re doing nothing and it’s a waste. When those moments happen, remember this list of health benefits that your body will experience simply as a result of being still:

  • Reduces the stress response, moving your body into ‘rest and digest’ mode
  • Lowers cortisol
  • Balances hormones
  • Releases toxins
  • Increases alkalinity/decreases acidity in blood
  • Encourages full oxygen exchange
  • Massages internal organs
  • Helps to manage pain
  • Increases control of emotions (fear, anxiety, reactivity/over-reactivity to stress)
  • Increases planning, attention, concentration and problem solving abilities (and other executive functions)
  • Improves ability to manage conflict
  • Increases learning and memory
  • Reduces susceptibility to stress-related disorders like depression and PTSD
  • Reduces “monkey mind”
  • Helps you be more present
  • Helps get you “out of your head” to help you listen to your body

The truth is that breathing is the cheapest thing you can do to deal with stress, calm your nervous system, and balance your hormones. And you don’t even need to get out of bed to do it!

👩‍🏫 Think you know stress? Test your stress smarts by taking the What’s Your Hidden Stress Score Quiz.

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Nicole Porter Wellness

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