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Breathing Techniques to Tackle Night Shift Stress

Breathe in. Breathe out. Stress less. Here are 3 breathing techniques to know.

Night shifts in a hospital can get pretty intense—between overflowing waiting rooms, crashing patients, and working on a skeleton crew, there are lots of situations that can cause stress and anxiety. And we know that kind of stress can follow us home, making it difficult to wind down after a shift and even fall asleep.

While we can’t control what happens on the night shift, we can find strategies to help us cope better with whatever it might throw our way. Many night shift workers find breathing techniques to be a simple but powerful tool in dealing with stress and even falling asleep quicker. Here’s what to know.


The science behind breathing techniques

Studies show that different emotions are linked to different patterns of breathing—so changing our breathing can change how we feel. When we feel calm, our breathing is typically slow, deep, and regular. On the other hand, when we feel angry or stressed, our breathing will be fast, shallow, and irregular. Breathing techniques can serve as a way to essentially hack your emotions—when you use breathing patterns that are associated with different emotions, you’ll start to actually feel those emotions.

Using breathing techniques can be especially helpful when you’re trying to fall asleep. In fact, some researchers believe that slow breathing techniques may be a more powerful and effective way of combatting insomnia than using pharmaceutical interventions. 

The best thing about breathwork is that it’s easy to do and can be done anywhere. It can lower stress and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which sends signals to your brain letting it know that you’re safe and don’t need to be anxious. Here are three breathing techniques to incorporate into your night shift routine.


4-7-8 breathing

There’s a reason why the US Army teaches this technique to their recruits. The 4-7-8 technique is a simple breathing method that helps the mind and body focus on regulating the breath. Regular 4-7-8 breathers claim it can soothe a racing heart or calm frazzled nerves. Studies have found that this method can improve blood pressure and heart rate. It’s a great aid in helping you fall asleep faster, even after a stressful shift. 

Here’s how to do it:

  • Inhale deeply through your nose to a mental count of four. 
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven. 
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. 


Use this breathing technique anytime you’re trying to wind down—whether it’s during a shift, at home while trying to fall asleep, or anytime you feel the need to de-stress. Shifting your focus from the stresses around your day to the simple act of breathing can do wonders to calm your racing mind.

To get started, try out the 4-7-8 breathing method while following along with this short video.


Box breathing 

Box breathing is a great technique to use when you need to return your breathing to normal after a stressful experience.

The name of this technique refers to the fact that a box has four sides, which is applied by breathing while counting to four, four times. Here’s how to do it:

  • Inhale through your nose to a mental count of four
  • Hold your breath for a count of four
  • Exhale slowly for a count of four
  • Hold your breath for a count of four
  • Repeat four times


Think of this technique as your all-weather breathing exercise—you can use it in virtually any situation. You can use this technique to improve your focus, relax your body, and clear your mind, whether you’re on a shift or trying to fall asleep. It’s also one of the easiest breathing techniques to remember—just think of the number four!—making it one of our favourite go-to’s.

Learn more about box breathing in this helpful video from Headspace.


Physiological sigh

The physiological sigh, also known as cyclic breathing, is a very simple technique that you can use anywhere to reduce stress and calm your body and mind. Its name may sound complicated, but it’s really just a way of changing your breathing rhythms. Essentially, the physiological sigh is a double inhale followed by a long exhale.

Taking control of your breath in this way can affect your stress response and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heartbeat and helps you calm down. Here’s how to do it:

  • Take a deep breath in
  • Once you’ve reached the top of your inhale, take one more short breath
  • Release the air with a long exhale
  • Repeat one to three times


This is the perfect breathing exercise to keep in your back pocket for when you find yourself overwhelmed during a hectic shift. It won’t take longer than a minute to complete and it will leave you feeling much calmer and ready to tackle whatever the shift throws your way.

Watch Dr. Andrew Huberman explain and demonstrate this breathing technique here.


One of the best things about breathing techniques is that they don’t need to take a lot of time out of your day to be effective—in fact, many of these can be performed in less than one minute. This means you can use them lying in bed after a long shift, or even during your shift while walking down the hall, grabbing a warm blanket for a patient, or grabbing your patient’s meds. Choose one technique to practice—over time it can become a default way to handle stressful moments.

Last updated: 2024-03-11

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Sierra Jensen

I'm a freelance writer who's passionate about matcha lattes and meaningful content. You'll find my work in regional magazines, healthcare websites, and lifestyle blogs.

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