Breathing is something most of us take for granted because it’s automatic, and we’ve been doing it since the day we were born. But your breath is a valuable antidote to work stress, and it’s with you wherever you go right under your nose. Studies show that diaphragmatic breathing exercises are effective non-pharmacological interventions to reduce anxiety, depression and job stress and improve sustained attention. According to research, deep breathing techniques, in particular, improve mood and reduce stress. Some studies even suggest that, in addition to providing immediate relief, regular breathing exercises can make people less vulnerable to stress by permanently modifying brain circuits.

When Job Stress Steals Your Breath Away

Your boss is suffocating you with impossible demands. A coworker takes the wind out of your sails talking over you in a meeting. A team member is breathing down your neck. You’re holding your breath on the verge of a meltdown. Chances are when you’re freaking out, you over breathe. Your breath becomes short, shallow and rapid. Perhaps you use your shoulders instead of your diaphragm to move air in and out of your lungs. You might even stop breathing or hold your breath and not even realize it. Over breathing (or hyperventilating) expels too much carbon dioxide from the bloodstream and upsets your body’s balance of gases, increasing your stress level.

This is in direct contrast to what happens when you’re calm and relaxed: your breathing is slower, fuller and deeper coming from your abdomen. When you breathe from your abdomen, your diaphragm flattens downward, pushing the muscles in the abdominal cavity upward, creating more space in the chest so your lungs can fill up. You can’t get as worked up if you force yourself to breathe deeply. Your body can’t maintain the same level of stress with the extra oxygen you get in your bloodstream when you breathe from your abdomen.

Natural Abdominal Breathing

Notice how you’re breathing right now. Do your breaths come from high in your chest or deep in your abdomen? Are they fast or slow? If you are aware of shallow breathing patterns, higher up in your chest, you can calm yourself by practicing abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing. It’s difficult to hold on to stress and relax at the same time. Deep breathing from your abdomen sends additional oxygen to your brain and activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest response) and creates a calming, soothing effect throughout your body.

When you breathe naturally the way you did as a newborn, your abdomen expands as you inhale, and it contracts as you exhale. By practicing natural abdominal breathing, you can achieve a state of deep relaxation in five minutes or less. The key is to bring mindful attention to your breath as you practice these simple breathing exercises. You can do them right at your work station, and you don’t need anything but yourself.

Place one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. Keeping your upper chest still, gently and slowly inhale a normal amount of air through your nose and slowly count to four on the in-breath. As you bring the air into the lowest part of your lungs, notice your abdomen rise on the in-breath and fall on the out-breath. Your chest should barely move in abdominal breathing. After each exhale, hold your breath briefly, then exhale slowly and gently, again counting to four, letting your entire body go limp. Repeat these steps for five minutes each day or do several five-minute sets per day.

Calming Breath Counts

Counting your breaths adds the extra dimension of concentration. This concentration introduces you to important aspects of meditation: focusing on your breath, blocking intrusive thoughts, relaxing and centering yourself. In a quiet, comfortable place, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Take a long, deep breath through your nostrils. Then slowly exhale. Take five easy breaths through your nose, imagining you are taking the air first into the bottom of your lungs, then moving into your upper lungs. On your in-breath, pause for five seconds. On your out-breath, start counting down from five. It might look something like this:

Inhale, pause, exhale, “5”

Inhale, pause, exhale, “4”

Inhale, pause, exhale, “3”

Inhale, pause, exhale, “2”

Inhale, pause, exhale, “1”

After your fifth out-breath, start counting down from five again. After you’ve completed a few sets, open your eyes and stretch slightly. Keep your focus on counting with slow, easy breaths, letting your breathing find its own rhythm.

Breath Awareness Meditation

One of the simplest and easiest forms of meditation is to use your breath as a focal point. The actual practice is realizing your attention has strayed and bringing your mind back to your breath, linking your mind and body together in the present moment. When you do this for three to five minutes, the practice keeps you more in the here and now as you move through daily work routines. Sit in a comfortable place with eyes closed. Breathing in through your nose and out through the mouth, focus on each inhalation and exhalation. Follow your breath through to a full cycle from the beginning when the lungs are full back down to when they’re empty. Then start over again. As you stay with this cycle, mindfully watching your breath, thoughts arise in the form of judgment: wondering if you’re doing it right, thinking about tasks you have to do later, debating if it’s worth your time. Don’t try to get rid of the thoughts. Allow them to arise and accept whatever arises with open-heartedness, bringing your attention gently back and focusing on the breath. Each time your attention strays from the breath (and it will), bring your awareness back to it. There’s nowhere else to be, nothing else to do but notice your breath. If your mind gets caught in a chain of thoughts, gently step out of the thought stream and come back to the sensations of your breath. After five minutes or more, open your eyes and notice how much more connected you are to the present moment.

The 365-breathing rule

Many therapists use a 365 technique to counter accumulated stress: at least three times a day, breathe six times per minute (inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds each time) for five minutes. Repeat all 365 days of the year during the day, during breaks or at moments of transition between two activities. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes. So, the more you take the time to practice breathing awareness, the more moments of calm, clarity and focus you will enjoy. In a short while you’ll notice a big reduction in your stress level, your ability to relax will increase over time and your job performance and productivity will soar.


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: