Breathing exercises are one of the most effective natural relaxation techniques for anxiety. Learn how breath training reduces stress and improves health.
“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.” — Dr. Andrew Weil
If you’ve experienced anxiety, you’ve probably been told to “relax and take a deep breath.”
This may or may not have worked for you.
Sometimes taking a deep breath can be the worst thing you can do!
But there are other breathing exercises and techniques that relieve anxiety and its root cause — stress.
And there are specific exercises that can help you when you are suffering from acute anxiety or panic.
By learning to breathe properly and employing the right breathing exercises, you can get a handle on stress and nip anxiety in the bud.
Breathing: Your First Line of Defense Against Stress
Science has now proven what’s been long recognized by the ancients — that the breath and emotions are integrally connected.
Neuroscientists have been able to correlate certain breathing patterns with specific emotions.
By employing that breathing pattern you can predictably change your emotions.
With relaxation breathing techniques you can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, sometimes as effectively as antidepressant medication. (1)
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When you feel anxious, one of the first places you’ll notice it is in your chest.
Your chest feels tight, your heart races and your breathing becomes quick and shallow.
You may gasp for air and feel you can’t catch your breath.
The rapid shallow breathing (called chest or thoracic breathing) is a hardwired response that can help you respond to danger.
Shallow breathing elicits the “flight or fight response” which starts a cascade of events.
Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, blood gets directed away from your brain and to your muscles, and a flood of stress hormones is released.
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Ideally, after a perceived danger has passed your breathing should return to normal.
The problem is for most of us, this shallow breathing is our normal way of breathing!
But you can change that.
Breathing is the only bodily function that’s both autonomic and voluntary — meaning it happens on its own and we can learn to control it.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Core Stress Relief Technique
Every day you take tens of thousands of breaths so you might as well learn how to do it right!
If you’ve ever watched a baby or a pet sleeping you’ll notice their stomach rises and falls more than their chest when they breathe.
Children naturally breathe from their abdomen until the constant stress of modern life retrains them to breathe from their chest.
Diaphragmatic breathing — also called abdominal breathing or belly breathing — is the way we are meant to breathe, but few of us do.
It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to evoke a true state of calm.
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This is your body’s “rest and digest” system.
When you’re under stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over inducing the “flight or fight” state anyone with anxiety knows all too well.
Your first quick breathing exercise is to learn and practice diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise
Sit comfortably or lie down.
Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.
Slowly exhale through your mouth.
Then slowly inhale through your nose, concentrating on keeping your chest still while expanding your stomach.
You should notice a fall and rise of your stomach and not your chest if done properly.
Do this foundational breathing exercise 20-30 minutes per day to reduce stress and anxiety.
If you practice only one breathing exercise, this should be the one.
The Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
Once you’ve trained yourself to breathe from your abdomen, you should find your resistance to stress increasing and your anxiety diminishing.
But until you’ve mastered abdominal breathing, there are other breathing techniques you can try.
The Relaxation Response
Just as your body has a “flight or fight” response, it also has a “relaxation response.”
When the relaxation response is elicited, your breathing and heartbeat slow down, your blood pressure goes down, and your muscles relax. (2)
This term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, who is largely responsible for turning meditation into a mainstream relaxation technique.
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He was one of the first Western doctors to put forth the idea that physical problems could be connected to the mind, stress, and emotions.
It’s hard to believe now, but back in the 1960s this was highly controversial!
Dr. Benson describes this simple breathing method for eliciting the relaxation response.
Relaxation Response Breathing Technique
Sit in a comfortable position.
Focus on a single word or phrase of your choice that you are totally comfortable with.
Examples are “I am at peace,” “om,” or “relax.”
Breathe from your abdomen while silently repeating your word or phrase.
Do this for 10 minutes.
Dr. Benson also recommends incorporating diaphragmatic breathing with other relaxation techniques like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, mindfulness meditation, or guided imagery to enhance the relaxation response. (3)
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Harvard-trained Dr. Andrew Weil is a world renowned leader in the field of integrative medicine and author of over a dozen bestselling books.
He’s convinced that learning to breathe properly is the most important piece of health advice you can follow.
In his audio book Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, he teaches eight breathing exercises.
Here’s one very simple breathing exercise he recommends for relaxation, anxiety, and insomnia.
4-7-8 Relaxing Breath Exercise
Place the tip of your tongue on the ridge of your mouth just behind your upper teeth.
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
Hold your breath for a count of 7.
Open your mouth slightly and exhale completely for a count of 8.
You should make a little whooshing sound on the exhale.
Do this 4 times.
Tip: Each count does not need to be one second. The key is keeping the ratio of 4 to 7 to 8.
Yoga Breathing Techniques
There are many yoga-based breathing techniques.
One technique is Sudarshan Kriya yoga. The breathing exercises in this type of yoga have been extensively studied and proven beneficial for stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, insomnia, and stress-related illnesses. (4)
These breathing exercises have been proven in dozens of studies to enhance brain function, increase resilience to stress, alter brainwave activity, and increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that stimulates brain cell production.
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These exercises even impact you down to the level of your DNA!
Alternate nostril breathing is a yoga breathing technique that goes by the Sanskrit name of Nadi Shodhan Pranayama which means “energy purification breathing technique.”
Did you know that during much of the day you breathe through just one nostril at a time?
Every hour or so you change dominant nostrils.
This breathing exercise looks a little weird so you might want to skip doing it in public!
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Push your thumb or one finger on the side of one nostril, closing it off.
Inhale slowly through the open nostril for a count of 5.
Now pinch the other nostril and breathe out slowly.
Repeat starting with the opposite nostril this time.
Do as many rounds as you’d like.
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CO2 Rebreathing for Anxiety Attacks
Sometimes being told to “relax and take a deep breath” is the worst advice you can follow.
Breathing is an exchange of oxygen in and carbon dioxide (CO2) out.
But improper breathing — shallow breathing, breathing too much, or thinking too much about your breathing — upsets the oxygen-carbon dioxide balance causing hyperventilation and anxiety attacks.
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When you hyperventilate, you actually have too much oxygen and too little CO2, but you don’t feel like it.
You may find yourself gasping for air which makes the problem worse.
We’ve all seen the movies where a person having an anxiety attack is handed a paper bag to breathe into.
Does this really work or is it an old wives’ tale?
Breathing into a brown paper bag can help by bringing your oxygen and CO2 levels back into balance.
This technique is often used in emergency rooms for people having panic attacks.
Here’s how to do the CO2 rebreathing technique with or without a paper bag.
CO2 Rebreathing Technique
Take 6 to 12 easy, natural breaths into a bag held over your nose and mouth.
If no bag is available, hold your cupped hands over your nose and mouth.
Alternate with easy, natural breaths outside of the bag or with diaphragmatic breathing.
There’s some controversy as to whether this technique is completely safe. (8)
A problem can arise if you aren’t actually hyperventilating but are unknowingly having a heart attack or asthma attack instead. (9)
In these cases the paper bag technique can be dangerous.
Breathing Exercises for Anxiety: The Bottom Line
Breathing exercises are one of the most effective natural relaxation techniques for anxiety.
Learning to breathe from your diaphragm is a foundational step in using your breath to calm your anxious mind.
There are other breathing exercises you can try to further put yourself in a relaxed state.
They can be done on their own or along with other stress relief practices like mindfulness meditation or guided imagery to enhance their effectiveness.
Breathing exercises are free, work fast, and can be done anywhere, anytime you need to put the brakes on stress and anxiety.