“Okay, okay, just take a breath.” If that's what your friend advises after you panic-share a massively anxiety-inducing work situation, it's probably because they hate seeing you upset.
But they're also offering an effective way to help you slow your anxiety spin. “How you breathe affects anxiety, and anxiety affects how you breathe,” says James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. “It’s a two-way street, and while anxiety isn’t a conscious choice, our breathing is.”
While the fact that breathing the right way can help you calm way the heck down may not be breaking news, it’s something we all need to be reminded of, especially these days. “The yogis of yore realized that if the emotional state could affect the breathing, the reverse could also be true,” says Savitha Elam-Kootil, M.D., an internist at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta and an advisor to MyYogaTeacher, an online yoga subscription service. “They were right, and there are modern studies that suggest that this is true.”
There are lots of different styles of breath work, and Dr. Elam-Kootil recommends pranayama, or yogic, breathing. “Evidence suggests that yoga programs that include pranayama result in reducing anxiety in humans, and a recent feasibility study found evidence of the positive impact of pranayama in patients with treatment-resistant generalized anxiety disorder,” she says.
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The best breathing exercises for anxiety:
Below are a few of our experts’ picks for the best breathing techniques if you’re feeling anxiety. Each of our panel emphasized that there’s no one-technique-fits-all, and if one doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. “Everyone is different, so it’s impossible to offer a blanket prescription,” says author Nestor. “But, in very general terms, most people will benefit from first learning to become aware of when anxiety is coming on. Once you are conscious that your stress levels are rising, you can take conscious control of your state — this is when breathing becomes such a powerful tool.”
And take care if you have health conditions in which holding your breath for too long isn’t wise, such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, says Dr. Elam-Kootil. Ideally, a breathwork instructor or a guide would teach you the best technique.
1. Just breathe
Set a timer, and do nothing but breathe for 60 seconds, with the goal of working up to three minutes, suggests Roberto Benzo, M.D., the director of the Mindful Breathing Lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Simply notice how your body feels when you breathe. “Be kind to yourself — perhaps it’s too much to start with a minute. If that’s the case, just start with 30 seconds,” he says.
2. Try a big sigh
In this technique, you take a deep-ish breath through your nose, and then exhale with an audible sigh through your mouth. “I also teach that you might envision releasing something from your body through the mouth with a sigh,” says Jasmine Marie, a trauma and grief-informed breathwork instructor and CEO and founder of Black Girls Breathing. “I like this one because it is connecting with more than one sense.” Repeat three times, or as many as feels right. “I tell people to lean into their body for what it needs … just start! Then listen to yourself. Do you want to be done now? That’s fine.”
3. Three-part breath
Inhale through your mouth, focusing on the stomach/diaphragm area; inhale further through the mouth, focusing on the chest area. Finally, fully exhale through your mouth, with intention. “The entire goal of the three-part breath is, how am I beginning to recognize how my body is feeling?” says Jasmine Marie.
4. Coherent breathing
Nestor favors this technique when you are feeling mounting anxiety. Slowly and softly, inhale at a rhythm of about five or six seconds, then exhale for five or six seconds. “If this feels too long, just shorten the cycle to where you feel comfortable,” he says. “Breathing this way synchronizes our respiratory rate with our heart rate, allowing our cardiovascular system, nervous system and brains to function more efficiently.”
5. Bahya pranayama
Sit upright in a quiet place and take a deep inhale; exhale forcefully to where you feel comfortable and hold your breath. Focus on the sense of holding your breath. “This puts a pause to the circuit of anxious thoughts and breaks the cycle even if for a while," says Dr. Elam-Kootil. Repeat a few times until you feel calmer.
You can also try two other simple pranayama methods: Take a deep breath in and hold as long as you are comfortable. You can stop there, or add a step: breathe out, and hold as long as you are comfortable, says Dr. Elam-Kootil.
What is 4-4-4 breathing?
You may have heard of “Box Breathing,” otherwise known as 4-4-4 breathing. That’s when you breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold the exhalation for a count of four, until you feel centered.
While a focus on counting may be calming for some people, Jasmine Marie isn’t a fan. “I do not teach counting,” she says. That’s because she likes people to use breathing to figure out how their bodies feel and what they need, and counting, for many people, keeps them in their heads — something you want to avoid if you’re in anxiety. “What ends up happening is, people have different lung capacities, and they may be like, 'this doesn’t feel right, I’m not doing it right,'” she says. “I try to help people limit their thought processes as much as possible, so they can tap into their bodies and get connected with their breath.”
Can breathing exercises cure anxiety?
Anxiety — a sense of unease or worry about something uncertain — is a normal human experience, not an illness, which is why “curing” it isn’t possible, or even desirable. A little anxiety can come in handy when it helps you prepare or gets you thinking critically.
But if you feel a lot of anxiety a lot of the time, and it gets in the way of your happiness and health, you’re going to want to try and manage it. In this case, breathing in specific ways can greatly dial down the anxiety response.
And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s waaaaay too much to be anxious about these days, says Jasmine Marie. “In our society, especially in under-resourced communities where there is consistently lots of chronic stress, there are 15 billion traumatic things happening at once,” she says. “We are not wired to have that much trauma, and it creates an overload in our bodies and minds.” Our brains fret and calculate and go to worst-case scenarios because that’s how we’re wired to survive. “As humans, we hate uncertainty, and we like to know how to protect our bodies and our minds,” she says.
This is where breathing to reduce anxiety can be a helpful go-to — even if you are physically unable to (or simply don’t want to) unroll a yoga mat. Breathing in a way that can reduce your anxiety symptoms is available to anyone who can breathe, and it costs nothing, says Jasmine Marie. “You always have your breath — you can practice different techniques wherever you are, walking or even at home in bed,” she says.
How do deep breathing exercises help anxiety?
First off, while deep breathing can often be helpful, what you’re really looking to do is slow, conscious and purposeful breathing — which is not necessarily deep.
Here’s why various types of slow, intentional breathing can help: When you’re spinning with anxiety, the limbic system (the primitive or emotional brain) takes over for the prefrontal cortex, or the more evolved brain that makes decisions, explains Dr. Elam-Kootil. Just as when you’re scared, your fight-or-flight response kicks in, “and the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, releasing adrenaline, which causes the heart rate to speed up, breathing to become faster, and increase in oxygen delivery,” as well as sweating and other physical reactions, she says.
What breathing techniques for anxiety do is shift the balance to the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that’s responsible for resting and digesting. “It does the opposite of what adrenaline does — it slows down the heart rate and breathing and reduces the release of stress hormones,” says Dr. Elam-Kootil. “It also lets the thinking brain take back control from the primitive emotional brain.”
Dr. Benzo adds that purposefully, consciously breathing also allows you to become aware of the anxiety you’re feeling. This, he says, is critical to learning to tolerate it, without letting reacting to it or racing to fix it. “The breath is like a pace-maker for how you want to respond to the environment,” he says. By pausing and slowing yourself down by slowing your breathing down, you allow yourself some space to respond, rather than to react.
This, says Dr. Benzo, is simple, but not always easy. “It’s not magic, like by doing this I will be just fine in two minutes,” he says. “It’s a top-down conscious decision to learn to respond instead of react,” he says. Slowing your breathing and being conscious of it “allows you to come to a different space, driven by your intention to respond to the moment appropriately,” he says.
Stephanie, an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author, has written and edited about health, fitness, and wellness for such publications as Good Housekeeping, Self, Glamour, Real Simple, Parenting, Cosmo and more. She’s covered topics from nutrition to psychology, from sexuality to autoimmune diseases and cancer. She lives in New York City with her two children.
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