For thousands of years, deep and mindful breathing has been used to help treat the gut-wrenching, chest-tightening symptoms of anxiety. For the last thirty years, there have been many scientific studies that explored the link between health and deep breathing.
How you are breathing can have both a mental and physiological effect. Breathing too rapidly or shallowly can contribute to stress and anxiety, as it triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. On the other hand, breathing deeply and consciously has been shown to help manage anxiety, reduce stress, and it can even help you get to sleep quicker.
Many of the best breathing exercises for anxiety have their root in ancient yogic traditions, as slow and mindful breathing has long been a central part of meditation and yoga practices.
Here is something that many people are not aware of. Paradoxically, the feeling of being short of breath comes from the fact that the person is not actually breathing properly. This is because there are two different types of breathing: thoracic breathing, which is when you breathe from your chest, and diaphragmatic breathing, which is when you breathe from your abdomen.
When you are feeling anxious, you will likely be taking short, shallow breaths from your chest without even realizing that this is what you are doing. This can lead to an increased heart rate, tension, and dizziness, and so make you feel even worse. Your body starts to produce more stress-related hormones like cortisol, and you reduce the amount of oxygenated blood going to your brain.
Learning to be aware of your breathing is the first step to helping yourself to calm down and relax. Rapidly inhaling sends signals to your body that you are in panic mode, while regulating your breathing and having long exhales tells it that you are calming down.
Breathe from Your Belly
Diaphragmatic breathing is what babies are born doing, and this is also the mode of breathing you automatically slip into when in deep sleep. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system, which helps slow your heart rate and calm you down.
A simple way to check where you are breathing from is to place one hand over your belly button, and the other in the middle of your chest. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, you will notice that the hand over your belly is the one that moves the most. Try using this method the next time you are feeling anxious. You will likely see that you are breathing from your chest, not your abdomen.
This technique originates from the yogic breathing practice known as pranayama. It’s a very simple method that focuses on ensuring that you breathe in and out for the same length of time. It can be performed while sitting or lying down, whichever you find more comfortable. Here’s what you need to do:
- Close your eyes and bring your awareness to how you are currently breathing.
- Inhale through your nose for a slow count up to four.
- Exhale for the same slow count of four.
- As you breathe, focus your attention on the progressive feelings of fullness and emptiness in your lungs.
The exact number of your count is less important than ensuring that you are breathing for an equal count on both the inhale and exhale. Most importantly, the breathing has to happen from your diaphragm.
This rhythmic breathing technique focuses on ensuring that you are getting long and deep breaths, with the exhale lasting longer than the inhale. It is best performed while in a comfortable sitting position, and it can be even more beneficial if you practice it at least twice a day.
- Position the tip of your tongue at the front of your palate, just behind your top front teeth.
- Exhale fully.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four seconds.
- Hold this breath for seven seconds.
- Purse your lips and exhale forcefully for eight seconds, allowing the air to make a whooshing noise as you breathe out.
- Repeat up to four times.
This method of breathing may cause you to feel lightheaded or dizzy when you first start to use it, so remember to do it while sitting or lying down. The most important aspect of it is the ratio of breaths that you take, so if you are struggling to maintain a count of four-seven-eight, you could try shortening this to:
- Inhale for two seconds.
- Hold for three and a half seconds.
- Exhale for four seconds.
Proponents of this technique suggest that the more often you use it, the quicker you will start to notice its relaxing properties.
Another simple breathing technique, 7-11 breathing is as simple as it sounds (and for the record, it’s unrelated to the convenience store chain). Its simplicity belies its effectiveness, though, as it has been widely used for a long time to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
- First, empty your lungs of air.
- Breathe in for a count of seven seconds.
- Breathe out for a count of eleven seconds.
- Continue for five to ten minutes, or longer if you have the time.
Again, if you are struggling to maintain breaths for these lengths of time, you can shorten them to something that is more suitable for you, such as in for three seconds and out for five seconds. The important part of this method is to ensure that the exhale is longer than the inhale.
“Most Doctors Agree That Breathing Is an Excellent Way to Stay Alive!”
These are just some of the best breathing exercises for anxiety and panic attacks, though really the main thing to remember is to be aware of how you are breathing. Using your diaphragm rather than your chest, and breathing deeply, helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will automatically calm you down.
An added bonus to these techniques is that by focusing on your breathing and the counts that you are doing it for, you are also diverting your attention away from the thoughts that are causing you stress, which is another important aspect of managing anxiety and panic attacks. Hopefully, one of these methods will help you to manage your symptoms.