top of page

Self-Regulation and Breathing Techniques for Stress Management

Athletes face significant pressures both on and off the field, which can trigger the body’s natural stress responses, governed by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Effectively managing these responses through targeted breathing techniques not only enhances performance but also supports overall well-being.

Strategies to Optimize the Bosy's Stress Response

Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System

  • The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates involuntary body functions such as breathing and heart rate and is divided into two main components: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which triggers the stress response (fight-or-flight), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which promotes relaxation and recovery (rest-and-digest). There are ways to trigger the PNS such as specific and intentional breathing techniques to promote calming or alert behaviors when needed.

Breathing Techniques for Activating the PNS

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: This deep-breathing technique involves breathing deeply into the belly rather than shallow breaths into the chest. It helps reduce the activation of the SNS and encourages the PNS to take over, calming the body and mind. Athletes should practice this by inhaling low and slow through the nose, letting the abdomen expand, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth.

  • Slow Breathing: Research suggests that breathing at a rate of about 5-7 breaths per minute can maximize the engagement of the PNS, leading to relaxation, reduced anxiety, and better cognitive performance. This can be practiced using techniques like the 4-7-8 breathing method.

Specific Breathing Exercises

  • Ratio Breathing: Extend your exhales longer than your inhales to enhance PNS activity, which has a calming effect on the body. Start with an inhale of 4 seconds and an exhale of 6 seconds, adjusting as needed.

  • Box Breathing: This technique involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for four, exhaling for four, and holding again for four. It’s useful for maintaining focus and calming the nervous system before and during high-pressure situations.


Regular Practice and Application

  • Daily Practice: To effectively manage stress responses during critical moments, these techniques should be practiced regularly, not just during competitions. Incorporating these strategies into your daily routine can help turn them into second nature, ensuring they are easily accessible when most needed.

  • Pre-Performance Routine: Incorporate breathing exercises into your pre-performance routines to ensure the body and mind are in a state conducive to peak performance.

  • Post-Competition Cool-Down: Use relaxation strategies after competitions to speed up recovery and decrease stress levels, preparing the body for the next training session or event.


Additional Downregulation Strategies

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): This involves tensing each muscle group in the body intensely but briefly and then letting go. It helps athletes learn to recognize and control the physical sensations of stress and relaxation.

  • Guided Imagery: Using calming images and scenarios can help activate the PNS, reducing the physiological symptoms of stress and preparing the mind and body for optimal performance.


By mastering these self-regulation and relaxation techniques, athletes can effectively manage their body’s natural stress response, leading to improved performance, faster recovery, and greater overall well-being. Harness the power of your autonomic nervous system to enhance your athletic capabilities and resilience.


How Do I Get Started?

If you’d like to get started, but have some questions, schedule a free introductory call with me to see if we’d be a good fit by clicking here!

bottom of page