Breathing exercises can genuinely help. A new therapy widely in use today that bears a significant resemblance to breathing exercises is biofeedback, or in some cases neurofeedback. The affected person is hooked up to monitors that display the physical outputs of their body, such as heart rate, muscle tension, skin conductance, brainwaves in the case of neurofeedback. These physiological actions typically occur at a subconscious level; we aren't really "aware" of them. Bio/neurofeedback makes us aware, meaning we can focus on them and try to control them with our conscious minds.
This appears to help because it reduces uncertainty; not knowing what is happening or going to happen can be more stressful than knowing something bad is going to happen. That's just the way the brain is wired. It reacts much better to knowing than not knowing. And being aware of our breathing or heart rate provides certainty where we didn't have any before. Small steps, incremental progress, are something that is emphasised repeatedly on the Cardiff course. This is a way to help break the "stress cycle", which describes how stress becomes chronic and self-sustaining. Let's start with a relationship breakdown. This causes stress, with low mood, lack of motivation, etc. This leads to reduced socialisation; your friendships suffer, and you end up more miserable, more stressed. So you drink more to feel better, albeit briefly. But this makes you less healthy, more sluggish, and your work suffers. Now your job's in trouble, your health declining. This causes more stress. So you drink more. Which means more stress. And on and on.
There is no easy fix. But at the very start of the session, we are given a brief, basic set of instructions that could, if adhered to, tangibly reduce stress. There were just 10 words: "Face your fears. Be more active. Watch what you drink." While simple-sounding, these things conform to what we know about stress, and even mental health problems, in the scientific sense. Facing your fears is often easier said than done but it's a valid approach. When we confront something that scares us, that stresses us, we may not enjoy it but we impose certainty on it. All the things that could have happened and had the power to cause stress have been cancelled out. In many cases, facing your fear has a net reduction of your stress due to how our brains work.
Being more physically active is helpful in so many ways. As well as the health benefits, it also maintains a sense of control. My friend Dan found that dealing with his stress and depression has been a lot easier since getting a dog. She needs to be walked no matter what he's feeling. Taking her means he's stayed active and achieved something. And "watch what you drink". Not just alcohol, with it's short-term euphoric effects but long-term depressive and anxiety-inducing ones. Caffeine is something to be wary of, too, as it stimulates the parts of the brain already overworked due to stress, and also disrupts sleep, another thing that can enhance/prolong stress. Ten words. Three simple instructions. But, given enough time, sometimes that's all it takes to make significant changes.