Breathing techniques for anxiety is an amazing free tool you can use to help you get through a situation, but also one of the most underrated.
When someone first said it to me, I didn’t get it. After using it (now everyday) I can really feel the impact myself and I get it now. If you Google it, there are so many different ways to breathe for things like anxiety and stress.
Here I have outlined some that are so simple to do, simple to remember and can easily be done in public without having to do anything that draws attention to yourself. If you’re not in public, some of these exercises might feel even more relaxing when lying down in a comfortable position, with any pillows/props you feel necessary.
This article is shared from my own personal experience with daily anxiety combined with research. If you are suffering with a mental health condition, it is still best to see a doctor or therapist. There is nothing wrong with that. Breathing techniques may not be the right thing for you.
Benefits of breathing techniques for anxiety
In light of keeping it simple, here are just some of the benefits I have found with using different breathing techniques for anxiety.
- Great way to slow down
- Manage your mind
- Calming effect
- Reduce any stress/anxiety
- Brings awareness to the present moment
It is so important and breathing techniques have been used as a tool for thousands of years. Breathing techniques date back to Tao, Hinduism and Vedic texts in Indian medicine. Now there are many contemporary forms of mindfulness and meditation centred around breathing. If you practise yoga, you may or may not already know that yoga originated as just a breath practise, as a powerful healing tool, as we all know it is the driving force of all the functions of the body.
There are also lots of scientific studies that show the benefits of breathing techniques and meditation, including decreasing inflammation, alleviating depression and fatigue and improving brain function.
Breathing does more than just keep us alive
Unbeknown to some, the way we breathe affects us both physically and mentally. Physically, it can help with posture, heart rate and blood pressure. Mentally, it can affect our stress response and calm us down by the rate that we breathe (volume, pace) as it signals to the brain the conditions of our environment. Breathing is so much more than we think, and therefore, we can use to our advantage in helping certain situations, e.g. anxiety and sleep.
Very often, personally, I get stressed and anxious. Whether it’s an angry client, a presentation (I hate public speaking), any social situation, stuck in a traffic jam or overthinking at night, I have managed to utilise the power of breathing for anxiety to help me through this inevitable, every situations.
What’s the right way to breathe?
I hate this question, it always makes me ‘forget’ how to breathe because I think about it too much! But that’s not the point of this section. The point of this is to raise awareness of how to breathe properly.
Sounds weird, right?
Breathing is just breathing. But hear me out. Breathing keeps us alive, so how can we possibly be breathing wrong?
In modern society, we have evolved so much that our lifestyles are completely different. We spend a large portion of our time sitting down, albeit it our a desk all day at work, sitting in traffic, watching tv or slouching on the sofa scrolling on social media. Being constantly hunched over like this is quite restricting for our breathing. When we are not breathing efficiently, it sends the wrong signals to our brains.
So, what’s the ‘right’ way to breathe and how does it affect our wellbeing?
I’m not sure if there is one ‘right’ way to breathe, however, I have learned that there are definitely ways of breathing that can ‘help’ or ‘optimise’ the situation you are in. Breathing is something we do without even thinking about it. Well, unless you’re like me and you suddenly realise that and then can’t stop thinking about it :’)
Breathing provides blood cells with the necessary oxygen, allowing the cells to release carbon dioxide, which we exhale. But how does it affect our wellbeing?
Without the proper oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, improper breathing can contribute to feelings of fatigue, anxiety and panic attacks, for example.
When we feel anxious, we tend to take shallow, rapid breaths resulting in Thoracic breathing (from the chest). This then signals a stress response, that can actually contribute even more to the feelings of anxiety and stress you are experiencing.
Breathing into the chest is a signal of ‘fight-or-flight mode’, AKA the acute stress response. This is a psychological response to a real or perceived threat. This response mode plays an important part in how we deal with stress and dates back to our ancestors who had to either fight or run away when there was a threat to their environment. The fight or flight mode our body goes into, is to help prepare for the situation better.
Obviously, our environment has changed a lot since then. However, we still face threats everyday. Those threats do not always have to be physical.
Sometimes they are psychological threats, too. For example, if you have a fear of heights, public speaking or even social situations. Learning how to deal with these situations can help you manage your anxiety and other symptoms a bit better.
From my own experience, just focusing on your breath can help pass the oxygen through your brain, distract your racing mind for a moment and calm you down (by focusing on the sound and the rise and fall of your stomach/chest)
I have detailed below breathing techniques that I use to help calm me in stressful situations, a state of anxiety or overwhelm and even when I cannot sleep. There are many ways to breathe for wellbeing, I’m sure there are hundreds you can find with a simple Google search, however, I only want to share things that, in my experience, have worked. They are all quick, easy and not embarrassing to do in public!
Different breathing techniques and their effects on the mind and body
Breathe into your stomach
Breathing into your stomach aka abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing is known mainly for its anxiety and stress reducing effects. It is the basis of a lot of meditation breathing, as it can help regulate bodily functions as well as reduce your blood pressure. It helps even and lengthen your breath, as you may be hyperventilating without even realising it!
- Put your hand on your stomach and allow your breath (slowly and gently) to expand your belly. If you’re not used to breathing this way, it may be difficult at first. Don’t force it, just see what you can do at first and build on it.
- When you’re ready, start increasing the length of your inhale, deeply through your nose. Relax your head, neck and shoulders and slowly feel your stomach expand.
- Hold it for a second.
- Slowly exhale, keeping it slow and deep, matching the length of your inhale and drawing in your stomach to release all the air.
- Repeat as many times as you need to.
Tip: Some may find it beneficial to count when doing it. For example, I’ll count steadily from 1 to 5. This helps me to calm and not rush, but to be honest, it also distracts me which is an added bonus to calming my self down or trying to stop my overactive mind when trying to sleep.
Throughout the day, check in with yourself. Put your hand on your chest and on your stomach, and see which is contracting and at what pace. This can help identify how your body is reacting in different situations.
A body scan is a great way to relieve the tension you are holding onto in your body, relax and calm down. And again, distract your mind!
Start by lengthening your inhales and exhales, start from the top of your body and work your way down, raising awareness to that area and decreasing the tension you are holding. Whenever I do a body scan, I am always so surprised at just how much tension I am holding onto!
Start from the top of your body and work your way down (or even the other way around)
Just stand still, breathing with your relaxed body for a few moments. You can stand or lay down for this, but if you’re at work or a public place, just face away, close your eyes and run down the list. You can do it anywhere (as long as it’s safe to do so!) Notice where you had the most tension.
Tip: I really enjoy a little head roll and as I work my way down my body, slowly moving and shaking out all the tension. Sometimes you might benefit from squeezing that particular body part tight, holding for 2 seconds, then releasing.
Nadi Shodhana (aka Alternate Nostril Breathing)
It is literally what it says on the tin. Breathing through your nostrils, separately. If you’re a fellow yogi, then you may have already tried this in a lesson. The benefits from alternate nostril breathing are stress and heart rate reduction, as well as promoting wellbeing and balance. Nadi means “channel” and “shodhana” means purification. By breathing through the different sides of your nose, you are purifying the air flows through your body as well as balancing the masculine and feminine energy within your body.
Make sure you are in a comfortable, seated position. Sit up straight, lengthen your spine and open your chest. Raise your dominant hand, resting the pointer and middle fingers on your forehead and close your eyes. Rest your non-dominant hand in your lap. Now, its going to sound complicated, but it makes sense once you have completed a round!
For the sake of explaining, I’m going to pretend you are right handed!
- Use the thumb on your right hand to close the right nostril and inhale slowly through the left nostril
- Keeping your thumb on your nostril, use your ring finger to pinch the other side of your nose
- Hold the breathe for a moment
- Keep your ring finger on your nostril and release the thumb on your right side
- Exhale through the right nostril
- Hold for a moment
- Inhale through the right nostril and hold.
- Switch your fingers over and exhale through the left.
- Repeat the cycle.
Inhale right > hold > exhale left > hold > inhale left > hold > exhale right > hold > inhale right > hold > exhale left
If you’re a pro: you may be able to do this without holding your nostrils! Goodness knows how people do that though, I have yet to experience it 😉
Lengthen your exhale
Science says that when we exhale, if are we able to lengthen this, we can influence our body’s ability to calm down. This is because our exhalation is linked to our parasympathetic nervous system.
- Take a normal breathe in
- Lengthen your exhale
- Draw in your stomach as you breathe out, ensuring you are pushing out all the air
- Repat 3-5 minutes
If it is easier, you can always count.. Maybe count to 4 as you breathe in, and 6 as you breathe out.
Just what is says on the tin. Focus on your breathe. Take a slow deep breathe in through your nose and as you do so, notice your tummy and ribs expanding. As you breathe out (in whichever way you would like) Notice the release as yo do so. Repeat for several minutes.
Equal breathing/box breathing
This one has many names, equal breathing and box breathing being the most common ones I have personally heard.
This technique is simply breathing in, holding, breathing out and holding, all for the same count.
- As you breathe in, count to 4 (or visualise a square box and as you breathe in, visualise draw the side of the box)
- Hold your breath for 4
- As you breathe out, count to 4 (or draw along the top of the box)
- Hold your breath for 4
- Repeat as you breath in and out
This breathe is most commonly used throughout a yoga practise, however, I have found it very helpful when in anxious or stressful situations, including panic attacks. It’s also known as ocean breathe, which is a more descriptive way of explaining it.
You breathe in deep through your nose and breathe deep back out from your nose, activating the whisper muscles at the back of your throat so you make a audible sounds as you exhale.
Here is a great video from Yoga with Adriene explaining Ujjaui breath a lot better that I can in this blog!
Identifying what triggers feelings of stress or anxiety is the first big step into helping yourself. You can then seek the right kind of support to help you manage them better. Some examples of triggers could be:
- Having to give a presentation at work
- Starting a new job
- Meeting someone new
- Going to a new place
But we all have a lot more going on than meets the eye. I would also recommend speaking to a charity or your GP for further help and advice.