Anxiety is a nasty piece of work. It can creep up on you when you least expect it, and it can completely derail your day. Millions of people live with the struggles of anxiety every single day, and while it is always best to seek advice and support from a mental health expert when it comes to managing your health, there are simple tips you can adopt that can help.
It sounds odd, but breathing is one of the best available tools we have to calm a racing mind. Below we explore exactly how and why it’s useful for managing anxiety.
We recently spoke with science journalist James Nestor, author of the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, about the physiological impacts of different ways of breathing. And according to him, when it comes to anxiety, how we’re naturally inclined to breathe is actually a detriment to our state of mind and sense of well-being:
People who are anxious and people who have asthma traditionally will be mouth breathers and will traditionally be breathing way too much. And by breathing way too much, you’re increasing your heart rate. You’re causing inflammation. You’re putting yourself in a in a really stressful state, which is not good. It just makes you more anxious.
Instead, when you’re feeling anxious, James says the trick is to aim to slow down your breathing and breathe through your nose.
The wonderful thing about breathing is that you can use it to stimulate a restful and relaxed state that parasympathetic side of your nervous system. And so one of the most helpful breathing techniques that I learned that they use for people with anxiety, asthma, depression, even people who have chronic lung inflammation and other problems is to breathe in at a pace of about five to six seconds. Don’t stress out of your half a second off or whatever. And breathe out at that same pace. Now, if you’re breathing this way right now, what’s happening is you are allowing your body to work at peak efficiency. You’re increasing the oxygen to your brain. You’re increasing circulation to your extremities and your heart rate is going to go down. And your blood pressure. I’ve found my blood pressure can go down 10 to 15 points just after a couple minutes of breathing this way.
James warns that because of the relaxed state this can put you in, it’s probably best not to practice it in situations where you need to be very alert, such as while driving or before an important meeting. But if you’re in a safe place and really need to calm down, you can take this simple practice a step further.
If you want to relax yourself even more, the longer you exhale, the more you’re going to be pivoting your nervous system into that relaxed state. So if you take a breath in to about a count of four or five and now let’s exhale to account of about 10. That seems very long, but just exhale very calmly. You can place your hand over your heart while you’re doing this and you can feel your heart rate go slower and slower and slower. Take another breath in to account of about four or five. Exhale to about 10.
It’s important to note that breathing through your nose is key. Per James, it’s profoundly better for your health than breathing through your mouth because our intricate naval cavity is formed in such a way that it helps to filter and defend your airways from bad particles like allergens and, yes, viruses. Nose-breathing also moisturizes the air you’re taking in and increases the amount of oxygen entering your system.
So the next time you’re feeling a bout of hyperventilation coming on, remember: take a breath in through your nose for 4-5 seconds, and breath out through your nose for 5-10 seconds.
Guided breathing exercises for anxiety:
If you need some help working through your first breathing exercises, here are some guided options that should help get you on your way.
Headspace has a selection of meditations and breathing exercises on offer. You can check out a playlist of options here:
Sydney psychology practice The Indigo Project also has a heap of great resources online. Here they share anxiety management tools, including a breathing exercise and on Spotify, they have an anxiety playlist ready for whenever you need it, too.
Calm has a “breathing bubble” available on its website that visually guides you through a breathing exercise. Find it here.
If you or a loved one is in need of support, help is always available. Call BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
This article has been updated since it was first published.