How to lower stress in less than 30 seconds (Exhale-Emphasized Breathing)


Besides raising your stress threshold and changing your stress mindset, there’s a third brutally-effective way to master stress: lowering it in real-time. As it turns out, the quickest and most effective way to do so comes down to a particular way of breathing.

What to do

Whenever you’re very stressed, do three rounds of exhale-emphasized breathing.

Why it works

The way you breathe has a powerful impact on how stressed you feel. Yet, it’s not about taking a deep breath. That’s precisely the opposite of what you should do when stressed out. To lower your stress level and calm down quickly, you want to exhale more than you inhale. This works via two fascinating mechanisms. 

First, when you exhale, your diaphragm moves up. As a result, there’s less space in your chest cavity, and your heart gets a little bit smaller. Your blood then flows quicker through your (now smaller) heart. Your nervous system senses that blood is flowing quicker – and reacts by slowing your heart down. This, in turn, lowers your stress level in real-time.

Second, your lungs consist of millions of so-called alveoli, which are tiny sacs that get filled with air. When something troubles you, these sacs collapse and deflate like a balloon. As a result, the level of carbon dioxide in your blood increases, which makes you feel stressed. Yet, when you exhale more than you inhale, you’ll get rid of the carbon dioxide in your system, which also lowers your stress level.

How to do it

You can forget about these details, but remember this: exhale-emphasized breathing is one of the quickest and most effective ways to lower your stress level. And here’s how to do it, depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. If you’re sufficiently private, do the following: inhale as deeply as possible through the nose for a count of two. Then, add a second inhale on top of the first one through the nose for a count of one. Lastly, exhale as fully as possible through the mouth for a count of six. Repeat this cycle two times, for a total of 27 seconds.

This technique is also known as the physiological sigh. Its second inhale on top of the first one reinflates the tiny sacs (or “alveoli”) in your lungs, and you’ll release much more carbon dioxide during the exhale. That’s one reason why the physiological sigh is more effective than meditation for handling stress, according to research by Stanford professor Andrew Huberman (pictured above). In this video, he demonstrates how to do a physiological sigh.

If you’re not sufficiently private, go for the simplest (and most hidden) exhale-emphasized breathing technique: three-six breathing. Here’s how to do it: inhale through the nose until a count of three. Then, exhale through the mouth until a count of six. Repeat this cycle at least two times, again for a total of 27 seconds. In essence, three-six breathing is a physiological sigh without the (pretty noticeable) second inhale on top of the first one. With some practice, you can do this without anyone else noticing – even during meetings or calls.

Apart from lowering your stress level, both practices help you fall asleep at night. So if you’re often feeling stressed at work or home, make exhale-emphasized breathing at least once a day a daily habit.