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Content reviewed and updated: 2/15/22

5 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety Relief

Breathing can have powerful effects on your body and mental health. From promoting relaxation to inducing stress, breathing plays an important role in the way our body responds to anxiety triggers. When you find it difficult to breathe during times of stress, practicing breathing exercises for anxiety can help stabilize your body’s response to triggering situations. From simple breathing patterns to unique yoga breathing, we’ve compiled a list of breathing exercises to help you achieve anxiety relief.

The effects of breathing on your body and mind

Breathing influences the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) branches of our nervous system. When you breathe really fast, your nervous system primes your body to take action in case of danger, and you become tense and anxious. If you have anxiety, you might experience shortness of breath or uncontrollable, rapid breathing (hyperventilation). Anxiety disorders can also accelerate your heart rate and make it difficult to concentrate. 

When you take time to breathe slowly and become more intentional with your breathing, you are sending a message to your brain to calm down. Deep breaths help increase the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulate the nervous system to promote a state of calm. 

Practicing breathing exercises can help you control your nervous system and manage your body’s response to anxiety. If you can connect your mind to the way breathing affects your body, you can start changing the way you breathe and handle stressful situations. You can combine these breathing exercises with meditation practices, yoga and other relaxation techniques for added benefit. As you practice these five breathing exercises, you’ll find it easier to embrace a calmer mind and reduce your anxiety.

    The 4-7-8 breathing exercise not only helps reduce anxiety but also improves sleeping habits and controls anger responses. It works as a rhythmic breathing pattern with intervals of four, seven, and eight seconds. To practice this technique, focus on this breathing pattern:

    1. Breathe in through your nose to the count of four
    2. Hold your breath to the count of seven
    3. Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight
    4. Do this three times and you’ll start to feel more in control of your breathing

    It’s recommended that you try using this technique at least twice a day, but no more than four breath cycles in a row. If you find it difficult to hold your breath in intervals of 4-7-8, try a shorter pattern like 2-3.5-4. As long as you maintain the ratio for the pattern, you’ll find it easier to control your breathing and feel calm.

    This breathing exercise engages your diaphragm. It encourages full oxygen exchange and helps us take deep, refreshing breaths. This method of breathing slows down the heartbeat and stabilizes blood pressure, which is both key to being calm. You can practice diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing” with these simple steps: 

    1. Sit up straight and pull your shoulders back to relax them
    2. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach
    3. Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds
    4. Exhale while pursing your lips and pressing gently on your stomach
    5. Repeat these steps several times until you feel more relaxed

    Resonance breathing

    Resonance breathing is a simple but effective breathing technique. It consists of coherent breathing in equally timed intervals or breathing at a rate of five breaths per minute, which helps calm your breathing and puts your mind into a relaxed state. The goal of this breathing technique is to synchronize your heart rate with your breathing, a state known as resonance. The most common resonance frequency is around six breaths per minute, but this can vary by person. Simply put, resonance breathing is a technique that helps you slow down your breathing rate to about six breaths per minute.

    Here’s how you can practice 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.

    When you deliberately slow your rate of breathing, you naturally increase the amount of time between your heartbeats and help calm down your body’s fight-or-flight response to anxiety. During a fight-or-flight response, your body is getting ready to take action in the face of danger or stress. With resonance breathing, your nervous system calms down and anxiety triggers become more manageable.

    Lion’s Breath

    Lion’s breath, or simhasana, is a well-known breathing practice that couples well with yoga techniques. It’s called “lion’s breath” because it involves sticking out your tongue and roaring like a lion. It seems odd, but research says this pose can help relax the muscles in your face and jaw. Some studies have shown that these breathing techniques can help ease stress and improve your cardiovascular (heart) function. Here’s how to get the most out of the lion’s breath technique:

    1. Inhale deeply. Try to fill your lungs as much as you can.
    2. Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and stretch it down toward your chin.
    3. Exhale forcefully while making a “ha” sound that comes from deep within your abdomen.
    4. Breathe normally for a few moments.
    5. Repeat lion’s breath up to seven times.

    If you’re feeling adventurous, try coupling the breathing technique with the yoga “lion pose”. From increasing your lung capacity to easing your facial muscles, the lion’s breath technique is a fun but effective way to navigate stress and reduce your anxiety.

    Alternate Nostril Breathing

    Alternate nostril breathing (ANB) is another breathing exercise that can be done as part of a yoga or meditation practice. Just as the name suggests, it’s the practice of breathing through each nostril individually. Studies suggest that practicing alternate nostril breathing is about three times as effective as mindful breathing at reducing people’s anxiety. 

    Follow these steps:

    1. With your right hand, place the tips of the index and middle fingers on your forehead in between the eyebrows. Place your ring and little finger on the left nostril, and your thumb on the right nostril.
    2. Breathe in through both nostrils, close the right nostril with your thumb, and breathe out through your left nostril. 
    3. Breathe in through the left nostril and then close with the ring finger.
    4. Release the thumb on the right nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
    5. Inhale through the right nostril, close with the thumb, release the ring finger from the left side and exhale through the left nostril.

    Practice Breathing Exercises to calm your anxiety

    Considering the benefits of breathing techniques, these exercises are a great way to start your anxiety-friendly morning routine. As you explore mindful breathing techniques, start small with one or two techniques that work for you. Keep in mind that there are various other relaxation methods that might work better for your needs, such as cognitive behavioral therapy exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. 

    Breathing exercises are not for everyone, especially for those who have panic symptoms or PTSD. In those cases, deep breath focus can increase some symptoms and should be introduced slowly, or alternatives should be used, such as guided visualization. Don’t feel pressured to feel like you ‘should’ be able to do breathing exercises and benefit from them, because the reality is that everyone soothes their nervous system in different ways. Find what works for your body and symptoms to help manage your anxiety. 

    It can even be helpful to speak with a provider about possible medication options and different therapy approaches to reduce anxiety. At Ahead, our providers can help both diagnose and treat anxiety. Whether you need medication or non-medication therapy, we are here to help get you where you want to be. We work with you to create a treatment plan that addresses the specific pain points in your life. Use these exercises in conjunction with a personalized treatment plan to help you manage your anxiety.

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