10 Easy Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

woman deep breathing

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Breathing techniques are often recommended to promote relaxation or for dealing with stress or anxiety attacks. When you breathe, your blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, which is then carried back through the body and exhaled. When people are anxious, however, they tend to take rapid, shallow breaths from the chest.

This breathing pattern is called thoracic (chest) breathing, which can disrupt oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body, resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, and other physical sensations. Since your blood is not receiving enough oxygen, this may signal a stress response and contribute to anxiety and/or panic attacks.

A second type of breathing pattern is called diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing, where you take deep, even breaths. Abdominal breathing is most common in people who are sleeping or who are in a relaxed state.

To determine your breathing pattern, place one hand on your upper abdomen near the waist and the other in the middle of your chest. As you breathe, notice which hand rises the most. If you are breathing properly, the hand on your abdomen should rise and lower with each breath.

Explore how you can control stress and anxiety through some simple breathing techniques.

Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack

An anxiety attack can present differently with each individual. Some of the common manifestations are feeling tense or nervous, being unable to relax, worrying about the past or future, feeling fearful, and not being able to sleep. Individuals can also experience things like hypervigilance, restlessness, irritability, and fatigue. Another sign of an anxiety attack is breathing rapidly, or hyperventilation, accompanied by sweating, and/or trembling.

Deep Breathing

Deep, abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes each day will reduce anxiety and reduce stress, according to The American Institute of Stress (AIS). Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. The AIS recommends these certified techniques that combine deep breathing and visualization:

Quieting Response

This technique takes only six seconds:

  1. Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth and release the tension in your shoulders.
  2. Imagine holes in your soles of your feet. As you take a deep breath, visualize hot air flowing through these holes moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen, and filling your lungs.
  3. When you exhale, reverse the visualization so you “see” hot air coming out the same holes in your feet

Teddy Bear Breathing for Kids

This technique can be used for children:

  1. Lie on your back, place one hand on your chest, and place a teddy bear on your belly button.
  2. Close your eyes and relax your whole body.
  3. Breath in slowly through your nose. The teddy bear should rise, but your chest should not.
  4. When you have taken a full, deep breath, hold it, count to 3, then slowly breathe out.
  5. Repeat until you feel relaxed

4-7-8 Breathing

This breathing technique was designed to help people fall asleep easier. It was created by Dr. Andrew Weil, a physician and spokesperson for holistic health and integrative medicine practices.

Also called the relaxing breath, the 4-7-8 breathing exercise serves as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. And, unlike sleep aids that lose their effectiveness over time, those using the exercise experience notable effectiveness with practice.

To perform the 4-7-8 method, sit with your back straight. However, once you are familiar with these steps, the exercise can be performed while lying in bed:

  1. Place and keep the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth for the duration of the exercise.
  2. Completely exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  3. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  5. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8.

Unlike sleep aids that lose their effectiveness over time, those using the 4-7-8 technique experience notable effectiveness with practice.

Mindful Breathing

Another breathing exercise that may help fight insomnia and improve sleep is called mindful breathing. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on your breathing and bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future.

Breathing control is a big part of mindfulness, according to Dr. Hebert Benson of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. He recommends:

  1. Choose a calming focus. Good examples are your breath, a sound (“om”), a short prayer, a positive word (such as “relax” or “peace”), or a phrase (“breathing in calm, breathing out tension”). If you choose a sound, repeat it aloud or silently as you inhale or exhale.
  2. Let go and relax. When you notice your mind has wandered, simply take a deep breath or say to yourself “thinking, thinking” and gently return your attention to your chosen focus.

A study in the JAMA Internal Medicine examined 49 middle-aged and older adults who had trouble sleeping. Half completed a mindfulness awareness program that taught them meditation and other exercises designed to help them focus on the moment. The other half completed a sleep education class that taught them ways to improve their sleep habits. Compared with the people in the sleep education group, those in the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression at the end of six sessions.

Another study involving 36 university students found that both daily mindful breathing and cognitive reappraisal practice helped reduce test anxiety. In addition, the mindful breathing and cognitive reappraisal practices were effective in reducing test anxiety.

Breath focus is another relaxation technique, similar to mindful breathing, that involves deep, rhythmic breathing, mental detachment, and the use of a word or phrase that helps a person focus.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing, is intended to help you use the diaphragm correctly while breathing to decrease the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate, decrease oxygen demand, and use less effort and energy to breathe.

The next time you’re feeling anxious, try this simple relaxation technique, which can be done standing, sitting, or lying down:

  1. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little.
  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft “whooshing” sound as you exhale.
  3. Repeat this breathing exercise. Do it for several minutes until you start to feel better.

 

Slow Breathing

While quick, shallow, and unfocused breathing may contribute to a host of problems, including anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure, cultivating greater control over your lungs can bring many benefits to your mental and physical health. A 2018 review of the relevant scientific literature found that slow, deep breathing can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it also appears to help relieve insomnia.

Intriguingly, an older study found that a particular frequency of breath—at around six exhalations per minute—can be especially restorative, triggering a relaxation response in the brain and body.

Experts define slow breathing as any rate from 4 to 10 breaths per minute. The typical respiratory rate in humans is within the range of 10–20 breaths per minute.

Pursed-Lips Breathing

Pursed-lips breathing is a breathing technique designed to make your breathing more effective by making the breaths slower and more intentional. After inhaling, you pucker your lips and exhale through them slowly and deliberately, often while counting.

Pursed-lips breathing has shown to be beneficial for people with lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. It can be performed up to four to five times a day.

Here is how it is done:

  1. Relax your neck and shoulders.
  2. Inhale slowly through the nostrils for 2 seconds (keep your mouth closed), a deep breath is unnecessary a normal breath will do just fine.
  3. Exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds (the extended time is the key). When exhaling, pucker your mouth as if giving a kiss.
  4. While breathing out, keep a slow and steady breath; don’t breathe out hard.

Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing, also called coherent breathing, can help you calm anxiety and get into a relaxed state.

A study of 15 participants sought to assess the effects of an intervention of yoga and coherent breathing at five breaths per minute on depressive symptoms and to determine optimal intervention yoga dosing for future studies in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD). During a 12-week intervention, depressive symptoms declined significantly in patients with MDD in both the high-dose and low dose groups.

Here is how to perform resonance breathing:

  1. Lie down and close your eyes.
  2. Gently breathe in through your nose, mouth closed, for a count of 6 seconds Don’t fill your lungs too full of air.
  3. Exhale for 6 seconds, allowing your breath to leave your body slowly and gently. Don’t force it.
  4. Continue for up to 10 minutes.
  5. Take a few additional minutes to be still and focus on how your body feels.

Yogic Breathing Exercises

By controlling the breath (a practice called pranayama), the ancient yogis found they could alter their state of mind. Pranayama practices create their effects by slowing and regularizing the breath. This engages what scientists call the parasympathetic nervous system, a complex biological mechanism that calms and soothes us.

In stressful times, people typically breathe too rapidly, which can lead to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance of the blood. This can result in muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety.

Yogic breathing can help achieve balance in both the body and mind. Mind-body practices are increasingly used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are associated with positive impacts on stress-induced illnesses such as depression and PTSD in most existing studies.

To experiment with consciously expanding your breath:

  1. Sit in a chair with your spine erect or lie on your back on the floor.
  2. Put your fingertips lightly on your lower belly, just above the pubic bone, and try to direct inhalations into this space, expanding the belly each time.
  3. Move your fingertips to the spaces below your collarbones, placing your pinkie tips on the sides of the sternum and splaying the rest of your fingers out to the sides.
  4. For a few inhalations, see if you can gently expand these spaces.
  5. Be careful to keep your throat as soft as possible as you do this, because there's a counterproductive tendency to tense it as you inhale into the upper chest.
  6. As much as you can, breathe into your back body, feeling how it balloons and then deflates with each breath cycle.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing (ANB) is another breathing technique that can be done as part of a yoga or meditation practice or on its own to help you calm your mind.

In a study of 100 participants, which examined the effects of ANB on the respiratory functions of healthy young adults leading stressful lives, researchers found that respiratory function was significantly improved after using the technique.

Hillary Rodham Clinton attested to using alternate nostril breathing during the stressful 2016 Presidential election.

Here is how it's done:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with the spine long and the hips relaxed.
  2. Release any tension from your jaw.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Place your left hand on your left knee with the palm face upward.
  5. Place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand on your forehead in between the eyebrows with the ring finger and little finger on the left nostril, and the thumb on the right nostril
  6. Use the ring finger and little finger to open and close the left nostril and use the thumb for the right nostril.
  7. On exhalation, close the right nostril with your thumb and breathe out through the left nostril.
  8. Breathe in through both nostrils, close the right nostril, and breathe out through the left nostril.
  9. Breathe in through the left nostril and then close with the ring finger. Release the thumb on the right nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
  10. Inhale through the right nostril, close with the thumb, release the ring finger from the left side and exhale through the left nostril.

Lion’s Breath

Lion’s breath, or simhasana in Sanskrit, is another helpful yogic breathing practice. You might think that sticking out your tongue and roaring like a lion seems strange but research says it can help relax the muscles in your face and jaw. Sone studies have shown that yogic breathing techniques such as lion's breath can help alleviate stress and improve cardiovascular functions. In yoga, it’s also known as lion pose.

Here’s how to do lion’s breath:

  1. Find a comfortable, seated position.
  2. Lean forward slightly, bracing your hands on your knees or the floor.
  3. Spread your fingers as wide as possible.
  4. Inhale through your nose.
  5. Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and stretch it down toward your chin.
  6. Exhale forcefully, carrying the breath across the root of your tongue.
  7. While exhaling, make a “ha” sound that comes from deep within your abdomen.
  8. Breathe normally for a few moments.
  9. Repeat lion’s breath up to 7 times.

A Word From Verywell

Slow, deep, rhythmic breathing exercises have been shown to have a beneficial effect on anxiety and stress. They can be done throughout the day, alone or in a meditation or yoga group.

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