Anxiety is a feeling of worry, fear or tension about things that may happen. If you’re dealing with anxiety, one of the best ways to cope can be literally just one breath away. Breathing exercises are one of many ways to help manage anxiety.
Benefits of Breathing Exercises
- They can lower your blood pressure and slow your heart rate, making you feel more relaxed.
- They relax the nervous system.
- When most people are anxious, they take short, shallow breaths that may signal a stress response in the body, says Jaryd Hiser, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Your stress response is how the body reacts to a perceived threat, and it can cause that shallower breathing as well as a quicker heart rate. Breathing exercises can counteract this tendency toward shallow breathing.
- Deep breathing can release tension in the abdominal area, which counteracts the stress response anxiety can trigger in the body, says psychologist Carolyn Rubenstein of Boca Raton, Florida.
Breathing exercises are easy to do, cost nothing and are always available. “The one thing you always have is your breath," says psychologist and holistic health practitioner Niloo Dardashti of Manhattan Psychology Group in New York.
Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
There are several breathing exercises you can do to help manage anxiety. You can do these exercises in a comfortable seated position or while lying down. Here are a few of the most helpful ones:
- 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale through your nose for four seconds, then hold your breath for seven seconds. Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Letting all of your breath out with that exhale is what can really help you feel relaxed, Dardashti says.
- Box breathing. You may also hear this called four-square breathing. First, breathe out slowly, focusing on letting all your breath out. Inhale through your nose for four seconds. Hold the air in your lungs for four seconds, then exhale through your mouth for four seconds. Hold your lungs empty for four seconds.
- Humming breath. In yoga, this is called Bhramari Pranayama or Humming Bee Breath as it combines vibration and breath to release tension, Rubenstein says. Inhale through your nose for five seconds. As you slowly exhale through your nose, keep your mouth closed but make a humming sound like that made by a buzzing bee.
- Belly breathing. This is also called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you inhale, try to expand your stomach into the hand that’s there. This is useful as the expansion works your diaphragm, leading to deeper, calmer breathing. As you exhale, slowly release air through your mouth and constrict your lower belly. This should be like deflating a balloon, Rubenstein says.
You can do several rounds of these types of breathing multiple times a day to help ease stress and anxiety. A small study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017 found that study participants who received intensive training in deep breathing had better attention levels, lower cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress hormone) and better emotions compared with a control group.
Breathing Exercise Tips
Here are a few tips to maximize the use of breathing exercises for anxiety:
- Talk to your health care provider first if you have a health condition that affects your breathing. Although these exercises shouldn't affect breathing when you have a condition such as asthma, it's best practice to double check with your provider.
- Stop using these breathing techniques if you feel dizzy or lightheaded.
- Although you can use these breathing techniques for anxiety, they're also useful when you’re feeling fine. In fact, knowing how to breathe effectively will make these approaches easier to use when you’re facing in-the-moment anxiety. “You can see drastic improvements by taking a few minutes to use breathing exercises to break out of the constant worry loops that we often get caught in,” Hiser says. You can practice breathing exercises during situations including: when you take a break at work, when you go for a walk or while waiting to pick up your kids at school, Hiser adds.
- Practice makes perfect, so to speak, but don’t worry about perfection. The actual amount of time you hold the breath or adhere strictly to a certain breathing exercise is less important than getting into the routine of deeper breathing, Dardashti says.
- Remind yourself to breathe deeper. You’re breathing right now, but it’s easy to forget to use deeper breathing exercises, especially if you’re feeling anxious. Wear a bracelet, use a sticky note or find some other visual reminder that will prompt you to use breathing exercises for anxiety.
- Consider adding visualization to your breathing exercises. This may involve visualizing a color, word or other image that you find useful. For instance, you could think of the word “calm” and envision breathing in a calm energy that moves down your body and towards your feet. Then, it goes back up to your body and toward your head, Dardashti advises. When you breathe out, imagine that you are breathing away stress and pressure.
Other Ways to Cope With Anxiety
In addition to deep breathing, there are other things you can do to help cope with anxiety:
- Be mindful of how your body feels when it's anxious. Are you aware of those familiar physical feelings that come up when you start to feel anxious? Maybe there’s a pit in your stomach or your breathing gets more shallow, for instance. Stay aware of those physical reactions, acknowledge them and try and distract yourself from them with breathing exercises or other activities. You may not always be able to distract yourself fully from these physical reactions, but you can try.
- Practice grounding. Grounding is the act of using sensory information to ground yourself back in the present moment, Hiser says. This can be particularly useful if you feel yourself having an anxiety attack. Think of 5-4-3-2-1: five things you can see, four things you can feel, three that you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing that you can taste.
- Use meditation. Meditation involves focusing your mind on the present moment. You’ve probably heard a lot about meditation or even tried it. There are many apps to guide meditation practices, and you can try it in short spurts versus a long, drawn-out session.
- Talk with a trusted friend or loved one. When you talk about your feelings with someone you trust, you can release your emotions, Rubenstein says. This can help you feel better.
- Exercise. You may already know about the physical benefits of exercise, but it also can increase your endorphin levels (a feel-good hormone) and your sense of well-being, Rubenstein says. From heart-pumping cardio to yoga and everything in between, you’ve got lots of choices. All that movement can be an anxiety reliever. Bonus points if you can get some exercise outside, which also can help improve your mood.
- Seek help from a mental health professional. If your anxiety is affecting your daily life, a mental health professional can help with more individualized recommendations to help manage your anxiety or other mental health concerns, Hiser says.