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Published on May 24, 2018

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

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.

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 March 8, 2019

How Adding Flow Yoga to Your Workout Routine Boosts Your Gains

How Adding Flow Yoga to Your Workout Routine Boosts Your Gains

When we fall into a workout routine, our moves become automatic, and the body quickly adapts. This is called muscle memory.[1] While teaching your body how to properly execute squats, push-ups, or crunches is a benefit, overly relying on these moves to consistently grow gains won’t yield the kind of results you want. That’s because the muscles work in the same way every time.

Simply put, they’re not being “surprised,” so they get lazy.

Supplementing your routine with flow yoga is one way of surprising your muscles, especially if you are new to the yoga practice and have never tried the postures. It’s like taking a new road home when you drive, deviating from your usual route. Science has found that by doing so, you’re creating new neuropathways in your brain.[2] The same is done in your muscles when you try a new routine.

How is this done? Let’s dive right into it.

How Flow Yoga Boost Your Gains in Your Workout Routine

Think about your current workouts:

If you lift weights, you rely on external tools to engage your various muscle groups. Over time, your shoulders, legs, or biceps will come to expect the weighted plates or dumbbells, in the repetitive sequences that you remember.

In flow yoga, we use the body as the weight. Add gravity and hundreds of different postures and combinations, and you have a workout that uses the same muscle groups, but in many different ways.

A pose such as plank is a full-body workout, with every muscle engaged to keep the body in one long line. While it’s a stationary pose, it requires muscle control and activation, with no room for passivity.

    A Flow sequence, on the other hand, requires your muscle to switch from one pose to another swiftly, providing you with a more balanced and wholesome use of your major muscle groups.

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    Not only do these poses and routines re-energize the body in a refreshing way, they also allow you to learn something new, which is powerful for the mind.

    Bottom line? Complementing your exercise regimen with flow yoga is like hitting the shuffle button on your workouts, using your muscles in ways that “surprise” them, which in turn boost their growth and performance.

    Energizing Flow Yoga with Added Cardio

    Flow yoga is also known as “Vinyasa.”[3] In Sanskrit – the sacred language of the practice and its Indian roots – Vinyasa is roughly translated to “one breath, one movement.”

    This guideline, first and foremost, enhances your breathing, and teaches you how to go from our typical shallow, chest-only breathing, to a more deeper, belly-chest breath that uses the entire lung system.

    Not only is this beneficial for a myriad of healthcare reasons (combat allergies, eliminate toxins, reduce stress, ease anxiety), it also greatly impacts our muscles,[4] and therefore our workout.

    Flooding your muscles with rich oxygen will only keep them healthy, while the cardio benefit will get you warmed up to take on the more challenging postures in a flow yoga class. This prevents injuries and cramping.

    The best example of energizing cardio in flow yoga is the Sun Salutation sequence. Each pose is completed on an inhale or an exhale, until the sequence is finished. One full sequence may be repeated several times, encouraging you to take fuller and deeper breaths. The cycles warm up and loosen the body and prepare the muscles for stationary poses that are held longer.

    Here’s how to do a Sun Salutation Flow:

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    Due to the Sun Salutations, the muscles are not thrown into a challenging workout, but rather primed and prepared with energizing breath.

    Why is this important, you ask? Because happy muscles are warmed-up muscles.

    The Best Thing About Flow Yoga

    The best thing about practicing flow yoga? You’re building strength and flexibility.

    Strength and flexibility are like the Mecca of a wholesome workout routine. Before we get into why this is important, let’s break these two down individually to see how they stand up on their own:

    Meet Strong Stan

    Strong Stan is at the gym, doing bicep curls with massive dumbbells. His muscles have peaked in size, and he proudly displays them.

    While he loves to lift weights, Strong Stan often skips stretching or warm-ups. He just doesn’t see how that could help him continue his muscle gains, so he jumps right into a heavy workout.

    While it’s not evident to a passerby, Stan’s muscles are hurting. Without sufficient flexibility or deliberate stretching, Stan’s muscles are shortening and getting tighter. This eventually leads to joint injuries,[5] because un-stretched muscles have limited range of motion.

    Big muscles are a sure indicator of strength, but here’s the kicker – choosing not to prioritize flexibility will keep them inherently at risk.

    Meet Flexible Fiona

    Flexible Fiona is in a flow yoga class, easing herself into a backbend.[6] She effortlessly gets into the pose, and “hangs” out there for a few breaths while the teacher cues the class.

    Even though the teacher instructs the students to engage their glutes and be mindful that this is an active pose, Flexible Fiona opts otherwise, and relaxes into the posture by sacrificing the strength she ought to be building.

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    To many in the class, Fiona’s execution of the backbend would be a success – maybe even something to envy. However, what Fiona doesn’t realize is that her excessive flexibility is actually a detriment to her joints.[7]

    Flexibility has been defined as the “absolute range of motion” by Tony Gummerson, Martial Arts instructor. For people who are naturally flexible, that line of absolute range is often blurry and, in practice, overlooked.

    It’s very easy for Fiona to go above and beyond her range of motion, since her flexibility parameters are much wider than what Strong Stan may experience in a similar pose.

    Because she doesn’t feel the stretch in the same degree of motion as other students in class, Fiona has to push the envelope of her flexibility. This puts too much pressure on the joints that are already overworked, and it overstretches the muscles that are now prone to tearing.

    Your goal is to create muscle and joint balance and wholeness.

    What Strong Stan and Flexible Fiona have in common is that they’re both missing vital pieces of muscle awareness.

    In Stan’s case, heavy and tight muscles crave flexibility. Without it, not only would Stan hit a plateau in his gains because of a sure injury, but he would miss out on having the lean and toned muscles that we all want to have.

    In Fiona’s case, her overstretched muscles are not getting a workout at all. Rather, her excessive flexibility is resting on her joints, which leads to definite injury.

    So what can you do? It’s quite simple.

    You have to give your muscles the opposite of what they’re used to.

    If you’re a Stan and hate stretching, focusing on your flexibility is key. You will lengthen your tight muscles, and you’ll create new muscle memory by practicing routines that are new to you and your muscle groups.

    If you’re a Fiona and hate strengthening, focusing on this priority is vital. Your muscles are used to being passive as you stretch, so shaking up the usual and putting them to work will not only keep you injury-free, but that much closer to the muscle gains you’ve been looking for.

    Fortunately, flow yoga is the whole package, and can be the one-stop-shop for both Stan and Fiona.

      Final Thoughts

      If you’re serious about using flow yoga to supplement your workout routine to boost gains, sign up for a class at your local gym or yoga studio. There are a number of styles of yoga to try, but as we’ve discussed in this article, the Vinyasa style is your best bet to complement a moderate exercise regimen.

      Many studios offer beginner-style Vinyasa classes, where the instructor will explain the basics, and break down the sequences in a pace that is suitable for entry-level students. From here, the student can build upon their practice, and opt for more challenging, fast-paced classes, such as Power Flow or Ashtanga.

      Working out is a lesson in teaching your muscles. The gains that we grow are the result of that experience, and it all comes down to conditioning our body in a way that is healthy, efficient, and balanced.

      With a practice like flow yoga, we can offer supplemental training to our current regimen that will work our muscles in ways that are new, refreshing, and “surprising.” This method will keep our muscles toned and lean, as long as we prioritize the balance between strength and flexibility to ensure that we’re meeting both of these needs. Our muscle gains and body health depend on it.

      More Resources About Yoga and Fitness

      Featured photo credit: Edit Sztazics via unsplash.com

      Reference

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