How Breathing Exercises Help With Anxiety and Insomnia

It is hard to fall asleep when you are stressed. If your mind is buzzing with thoughts or your body is burdened with tension, it can be impossible to doze off. Insomnia is often worsened by anxiety, but how might simple breathing exercises help? Learn about one of the most popular relaxation techniques to ease your difficulty sleeping.

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Simple Exercises to Focus on Breathing

Breathing is a lot like sleep: it should come naturally, and you shouldn’t have to think about it. When you have to focus on it, you know you are in trouble. Breathing exercises can help you to fall asleep if you have insomnia. Much like guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises are a helpful tool to have that can ease your mind and transition you to sleep.

Start by getting comfortable. If you're sitting in a chair, make sure that your feet are planted on the floor. Let your arms relax on your lap or at your side, and allow yourself to slump back into a relaxed position (this can easily be accomplished if you're lying down). Once you're comfortable, close your eyes.

Next, turn your attention to your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly through your nose. (If your nose is too congested, you can modify this technique and breathe through your mouth.) Focus your mind on the tip of your nose. Feel the movement of the air past your nostrils. You may notice that it feels cool as you breathe in, and warmer as you breathe out. Observe the sensation as the air movement tickles the hairs in your nose. Take some additional breaths in and out, perhaps 10 total.

Now bring your mind’s attention to the movement of the air in the upper part of your nose; you may still feel the temperature differences, and you may also feel the resistance of the air as it passes through your nasal passages to the back of your nose. Continue to take slow breaths, in and out, to a total of 10.

Next, change your focus again along the path of the airflow. Concentrate on the movement of air at the back of your throat, past the base of your tongue. You may notice less of a variance in the temperature, and you may feel the air tickle your throat and tongue as it passes. Breathe deeply in and out, taking 10 full breaths, feeling the air move as it goes to your lungs and back out.

Finally, shift your attention to your lungs themselves. Feel the sensation of the air as it pours into and fills your lungs, which expand to accommodate the air, stretching as more air fills them. You may notice your rib cage rise slightly or your stomach push out as the air comes in. When you relax your diaphragm at the end of the breath, the air rushes out. Concentrate on this pattern: the movement of the air, in and out. This is called a tidal volume. Just like waves crashing on a beach, rolling in and rushing out, your breathing is a constant flow and movement of air. Center yourself on this natural process for 10 breaths.

Divide Your Breaths Into Equal Thirds

You can then begin to concentrate on the volume of this air. Try to divide your breath into equal thirds. Breathe all the way out, emptying your lungs. Draw in one-third of a breath, and pause for a second. Then take in the second third, filling your lungs, and pausing again for a second. Finally, draw in the last third, filling your lungs completely. You may find that the final third is not quite equal to the prior partial breaths. Let out all the air, expelling it completely, and try again. Do your best to divide the breaths into equal thirds.​​

Breathing Exercises Can Aid Relaxation

You can repeat these exercises as often as need until you find yourself feeling more relaxed.

These breathing exercises can help you relax, which can be especially helpful if you have difficulty falling asleep at night, or you wake and cannot return to sleep. Insomnia is often driven by underlying stress or anxiety, and these simple exercises can help to diffuse this tension. You may use them to help you transition to sleep or to alleviate stress during your day. All you need is a comfortable place to sit or lie down; then, just close your eyes and breathe.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Khakha DC, Satapathy S, Dey AB. Impact of Jacobson progressive muscle relaxation (JPMR) and deep breathing exercises on anxiety, psychological distress and quality of sleep of hospitalized older adults. Journal of Psychosocial Research. 2015;10(2):211.

  2. Jerath R, Crawford MW, Barnes VA, Harden K. Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxietyAppl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2015;40(2):107-115. doi:10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.