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5 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety (Simple and Calm Anxiety Quickly)

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5 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety (Simple and Calm Anxiety Quickly)

Time and time again, we’re told what a powerful tool breathing exercises can be for reducing anxiety and more specifically, the physical effects anxiety has on our body.

Yet how often have you gone hunting to find suitable breathing exercises for anxiety only to bump into a string of complex yoga jargon and techniques that take so long to master that they’re just not fit for purpose?

After all, when you’re in the grip of crippling anxiety or -worse- a full-blown panic attack, you simply don’t have the time to assume the lotus position and start worrying pranayama, whatever that is.

What you need is quick, simple solutions you can apply right there on the spot to relax your breathing and return to feeling calm and in control within seconds.

Today, we’ll look at five of the best breathing techniques for doing just that, ranging from powerful techniques you can use to curtail anxiety before it escalates, to quick-fixes you can use in an emergency whenever a panic attack strikes.

Why do breathing exercises for anxiety work?

Stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. Doesn’t it just feel better?

In that moment, you’re focused only on that breath. Your mind isn’t occupied with reading this article, listening to background noise or getting lost in the thousand and one thoughts rushing through your mind. Instead, it’s tuned only to that breath, on the slow, deep inhale and calm, relaxing exhale.

Take another deep breath and this time, pay attention to how you feel. This time, you’ll notice that not only is your mind clearer because of the reason mentioned above but also that you feel physically different, even if only for a moment.

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This is because, as you focus on those slow, deep breaths, you’re sending a message to your brain that it’s time for calm. Your brain, in turn, sends messages throughout your body that result in that feeling of calm washing gently over you.

Now, compare this to what happens when you’re in the grip of anxiety.

When you get anxious, you tend to do what’s called thoracic -or chest- breathing, releasing quick, shallow breaths in rapid succession.

Often, instead of slowing down your breathing, you get caught up in how those rapid breaths make you feel as though you’re not getting enough oxygen, thus escalating the level of panic. This sends all kinds of confusing signals to the brain which, in response, sends its own signals back through the body, negatively affecting your levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. As a result, your blood isn’t sufficiently oxygenated and thus you end up with all the classic symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks such as a thumping heart, dizziness and muscle tension.

When you finally take note of our breathing and consciously return it to slow, even diaphragmatic breathing (breathing using your diaphragm), you signal to your brain that it’s time to correct the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, alleviating those symptoms and making you feel calm and relaxed in the process.

So, that’s the science stuff out of the way, but how do you actually use breathing exercises for anxiety?

Quick and effective breathing exercises for anxiety

Here are five quick and effective techniques you can use right now, or whenever you need them, to return yourself to a peaceful state of calm.

1. Easy abdominal breathing technique

Let’s start with one of the simplest and most effective techniques available.

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You might have seen this referred to as “belly breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing techniques.” Whatever name you see it by, the technique is essentially the same.

Here’s a video to help you go through the technique:

Abdominal breathing technique in action:

  1. Sitting or lying in a comfortable position, close your eyes, relax your shoulders and allow any tension in your muscles to disappear if at all possible.
  2. Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose. Your bellow should expand whilst your chest rises very little. If it helps, you can put your hand on your bellow and feel the inhaled breath pushing that hand up.
  3. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Keeping your jaw relaxed, purse your lips as you blow, though remember to keep the exhale nice and gentle. Again, you can keep your hand on your stomach and very lightly push down as you exhale.
  4. Repeat for several minutes until you feel calm again.

Like most of these exercises, you may find it helpful to practice this one even when you’re feeling anxious. That way, you’ll know just what to do when the time comes that you do need to use it.

2. Buteyko breathing method

One common symptom of an anxiety or panic attach is hyperventilating. This involves breathing so rapidly that it almost feels that you just can’t get enough oxygen into your lungs no matter what you do.

In actual fact, the very opposite is happening. Hyperventilation is caused by too much oxygen getting in, upsetting the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance and inducing those feelings of panic. The Buteyko method readdresses that balance, proving itself to be highly effective in stopping hyperventilation.

Here’s a video to help you go through the technique:

Buteyko breathing method in action:

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  1. Sit comfortably, take a gentle breathe in through the nose.
  2. Just as gently, breathe out, again through the nose.
  3. Immediately following the exhale, pinch your nose with your fingers and hold your breath.
  4. Continue to hold your breath for as long as you can.
  5. When you feel a natural urge to breathe again, let go of the nose and breathe out.
  6. Resume breathing as normally as possible.
  7. Wait for 30 – 60 seconds and repeat until you feel calm and relaxed.

3. 1:4:2 Power breaths

Fans of best-selling author and performance coach Tony Robbins may already be familiar with this one.

Featured in Robbins’ groundbreaking 2001 book Unlimited Power, this powerful technique can help you quickly move from the short, shallow thoracic breathing that creates panic attacks to the deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing that leaves us calm and relaxed:

Like all the breathing exercises we’re looking at today, this one has the added benefit that by focussing on it and it alone, we’re able to take our thoughts away from the anxiety trigger, putting our minds in a clear, calm state from which we can better tackle what’s in front of us.

It’s called 1:4:2 because that’s the ratio used to determine how long to inhale, hold and exhale a breath. Using that ratio for an initial count of five, for example, the technique would look like this:

1:4:2 in action:

  1. Inhale for five seconds
  2. Hold the breath in for 20 seconds
  3. Exhale for 10 seconds.

If you find that this is too much, you can always adjust the number of seconds providing you stick to the same ratio.

You could, for example, do the following:

  1. Inhale for three seconds
  2. Hold the breath for 12 seconds
  3. Exhale for six seconds.

Tony Robbins recommends doing 10 “power breaths” three times a day, though even if you don’t remember to do it throughout your day, repeating this exercise ten times when you’re struggling with anxiety can really help with alleviating the symptoms you’re dealing with.

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4. Equal breathing

If all that talk of numbers and ratios causes you more anxiety than it solves, here’s a much simpler version. This one focuses on breathing in and our for an equal number of breaths:

Equal breathing in action:

  1. Breathe in slow and steady through the nose for a count of four.
  2. Relax and exhale for the same count of four.
  3. Repeat until feeling calm and relaxed.

You might also find it helpful to use this one before bed if your anxiety is causing you sleep problems.

5. Alternate nostril breathing

Finally, we come to one of the trickier breathing exercises for anxiety, albeit one that can prove hugely beneficial in helping us move from thoracic to diaphragmatic breathing, as well as regaining focus when anxiety sends your thoughts into a spin.

Here’s a video to help you go through the technique:

Alternate nostril technique in action:

  1. Place your right thumb over your right nostril.
  2. Breathe in through your left nostril.
  3. Put your finger over your left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
  4. Alternate breathing in through one nostril and out through the other, blocking whichever nostril you’re not using.

Choose the best breathing exercises for your anxiety

Whilst some of these techniques are best used in specific circumstances (such as Buteyko for hyperventilation), each one ultimately achieves the same result — Getting us out of those fast, shallow breaths that cause our anxiety symptoms and back into the deep, relaxing breaths that leave us feeling calm.

To determine which one is best for you, you might want to take some time to practice each one and decide for yourself which is the most effective in alleviating your anxiety.

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Featured photo credit: Pixabay via pixabay.com

More by this author

Chris Skoyles

Coach, and trainee counsellor specializing in mental health and addiction.

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Published on January 18, 2022

How to Stop Being Anxious And Regain Your Calm

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How to Stop Being Anxious And Regain Your Calm

Are you sick and tired of wasting your mental and emotional energy worrying about (and replaying) events in your mind? Even sabotaging yourself, your performance, and your relationships, at times? Constantly playing the “what if” game in your mind?

Let’s be honest, feeling anxious is miserable and unequivocally sucks the enjoyment out of life. It does this because it is impossible to be in the present moment when you are constantly worried about the future or past events. Here’s the deal—it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s talk about some tips on how to stop being anxious and get your calm back.

The Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having Anxiety

Feeling anxious is just part of the human experience and is a normal stress response. When the stress is removed, the anxiety usually goes away, too. With an anxiety disorder, the stressful trigger is removed but the anxiety can still be present.[1]

There are multiple anxiety disorders with varying characteristics. If you are concerned that you may have one of them, it is best to be evaluated by your doctor, especially since anxiety is very common. According to research, up to 33% of all Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime.[2]

What Can You Do to Manage Feeling Anxious?

The good news is there’s a lot that you can do to stop being anxious. Science is learning more and more every day about ways we can manage feeling anxious.

I am a strong believer in being proactive and preventative. If you have a lot of stress in your life or are prone to feeling anxious, I always recommend establishing a foundation of good daily habits. That way, when something happens to poke the anxiety bear, you are already in a position to handle things.

Twenty tips may be overwhelming for some people but remember: you are not expected to incorporate every tip on this list. Look at it as a menu of potential helpful options. You can pick and choose whatever you want and leave the rest.

Here are 20 tips on how to stop being anxious:

1. Eat the Right Food

It might come as a surprise to some, but certain foods can make anxiety worse, such as sugary foods, processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners.[3]

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Here are some foods you can try instead that can help reduce anxiety: Brazil nuts, fatty fish, eggs, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, Turmeric, Chamomile, yogurt, and green tea.[4]

2. Stay Hydrated

One simple tip to help you stop being anxious is by staying hydrated. Even being mildly dehydrated has been shown to worsen anxiety.[5] So, drink up! Water, that is.

3. Work Some Mindfulness Into Your Day

This one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Meditation and diaphragmatic breathing (breathing into your belly and engaging your abdominals upon exhale) are what usually come to mind, but there are some other fast and easy exercises that can help calm you down almost immediately.

One of my favorites is called Five Things, and it’s based upon our five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch). It can be done in any order.

For example, you might start by picking five things you can see. As you list each item, it’s important to take in the detail of each one. Next, you pick four things you can feel, noting each item with the same attention to detail. Work your way down to one item accompanying your last sense.

4. Get Some Exercise

Completing 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week may significantly improve symptoms of anxiety. Even as little as 10 minutes has a positive impact.[6]

In one study, exercise was shown to be as effective as medication in the treatment of symptoms of anxiety, with higher intensity exercise more effective than lower intensity exercise.[7]

5. Sit With It/Observe It

Dr. Judson Brewer recently penned a book (and an app) entitled Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind in which he discusses turning toward our emotions as a way to process them rather than distracting ourselves or bottling things up (turning away).

He encourages people to be an observer of the emotional response in their bodies, almost as if conducting a research project in great detail and noting the exact location of physical sensations (stomach, right or left side, front or back) with as much detail as possible.

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6. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an approach that utilizes the cyclical connection between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as a means to control unwanted (anxious) thoughts.

One exercise to stop ruminating thoughts includes picturing a stop sign in great detail, instructing yourself to “stop,” and then changing the narrative to something positive, encouraging, or even more realistic or likely.

Another CBT exercise involves challenging negative thought patterns and beliefs for validity by asking yourself:

  • Is there evidence for my thought or am I making assumptions?
  • What’s the worst that could happen? Is this likely?
  • What’s the best that could happen?
  • What’s most likely to happen?
  • Will this matter in a week, a year, or five years from now?

7. Realize What You Can and Can’t Control

Take action where you can. Many of us spend time worrying and feeling anxious over things we can’t control.

Figure out what you can do and take action from there. Studies show that taking action reduces anxiety.[8]

8. Gratitude

Reminding ourselves of the good things in our lives not only brings positivity to us but also reduces anxiety. This is because it is neurologically impossible for our brain to focus on negative and positive information at the same time.[9]

9. Volunteer or Do Something for Someone Else

Helping others feels good. It also reduces stress, boosts our immune system, and can help us live longer.[10]

10. Journal in the 3rd Person

The practice of journaling has long been known as a valuable tool to help us manage our emotions, and it can also help us stop being anxious and regain our calm.

Making a point to name the emotions you are experiencing (“name it to tame it”) is a principle Dr. Dan Siegel discovered that heightens the value of journaling. More recently, Dr. Kross, in his book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, noted that journaling in the 3rd person (as if narrating your life) creates further value by creating some distance between you and the emotion you are experiencing, thus allowing you to breathe easier and gain perspective.

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11. Go Out Into Nature

Spending time in nature has been shown to improve attention, lower stress, improve mood, reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders, and even cause upticks in empathy and cooperation.[11]

12. Spend Time With Animals

Dogs are not only your best friend, but it turns out they are good for your mental and emotional health, too. The fact that cats just allow you to live with them as their servant doesn’t detract from the positive impact they also have on our emotional well-being.

Spending time cuddling with your pet on the couch can decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have also found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.[12]

13. Get Good Sleep

Getting good sleep can be difficult when we feel anxious, but being tired can worsen the issue. Try sticking to a consistent bedtime, make your bedroom dark, the temperature cool, and limit screen time before going to sleep.

14. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine

Alcohol changes the level of neurotransmitters in our brain. This can lead to a heightened sense of anxiety. Caffeine is a stimulant, specifically stimulating our fight or flight response, which is already more sensitive for those struggling with anxiety. Use both in moderation.

15. Show Yourself Compassion and Encouragement

What would you say to your best friend? Many times we make things worse by shaming or berating ourselves for feeling anxious because we fear it makes us appear weak or vulnerable. This makes the problem worse.

What would your best friend say to you? Stop beating yourself up and be your own best friend.

16. Spend Time With Friends

Healthy friendships make us feel included, improve self-confidence and self-esteem, and thus, help reduce anxiety.[13]

17. Create Balance in Your Life

Set healthy boundaries and priorities, and don’t be afraid to enforce them. Nobody else can do this for you. Value yourself. You are worth it.

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18. Have a Plan

Another tip to help you stop being anxious is to have a plan. Knowing what you will do takes away a lot of the “what if” thoughts in your mind. Being certain about some things and managing your expectations can help give you peace of mind.

19. Remind Yourself of a Past Event

You can also try to remind yourself of a past event in your life that you were anxious about but still ended up okay. Have confidence that you will make it through this situation, too.

20. Have Some Structure or Routine in Your Day

Knowing what to expect can significantly reduce anxiety and the fear that can accompany uncertainty.[14] Give yourself as much structure as you need. You’ll thank yourself for it.

Final Thoughts

It can be difficult to manage feelings of being anxious. Take charge and pick a few of these to try out. Be consistent, and see how you feel.

You can always discard what doesn’t work for you, and pick something else to try. Confide in a friend that you are implementing some new strategies, and get some support.

Always tell your doctor your concerns, and don’t hesitate to get help if you are having difficulty managing things on your own. Good luck!

More Tips for Calming Your Mind

Featured photo credit: Ben White via unsplash.com

Reference

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