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Breathing Exercises to Relieve Anxiety

October 12, 2022

Meditation

Breathing is something that we all do pretty mindlessly. After all, it’s essential for us to survive! So, what is there to really think about?

There is more to breathing than meets the eye (yes, that pun was intended). Breathwork can be a powerful practice that supports us in all aspects of life.

What is breathwork?

During breathwork you intentionally change your breathing pattern. This form of consciously working your breath allows the mind to enter a different state of awareness. Practicing breathing in different patterns gives the brain’s executive functioning something to focus on, so you can sidestep the mental level of consciousness and release into a deeper state of consciousness.

Breathwork can help reduce stress and release trauma or mental, physical, and emotional blocks. Conscious breathing supports us when we feel anxious, depressed, and helps alleviate feelings of fear, grief, and anger. 

How does breathing help reduce anxiety?

Specifically, breathing in different patterns is a unique method for relieving anxiety. This is because it’s both automatic and self-controlled, meaning even though we breathe unconsciously, the way we breathe can be manipulated or adjusted.

People who have anxiety tend to take rapid, shallow breaths from the chest. This short cycle of breath can interrupt the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels from their normal levels.

During a panic attack, rapid breaths can lead to a faster heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, among other symptoms. These symptoms could also in turn trigger higher levels of anxiety. Breathwork helps bring your body back to a state of neutrality.

Breathing exercises that help relieve anxiety

The next time you’re feeling anxious, there are many different types of breathwork techniques to try. Learn how to use these breathing exercises listen below to help relieve feelings of anxiety and stress.

  1. Box breathing
  2. 4-7-8 breathing
  3. Lion’s breath
  4. Alternate-nostril breathing
  5. Belly breathing
  6. Pursed-lip breathing

Box breathing

This type of breathing exercise is also known as four-square breathing, and is very simple to learn and practice at any time.

  1. Exhale to a count of four
  2. Hold your lungs empty for a count of four
  3. Inhale to a count of four
  4. Hold the air in your lungs for a count of four
  5. Exhale to a count of four
  6. Repeat the pattern four times

Box breathing helps us take slow, deep breaths, producing a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body. It can heighten performance and concentration while also being a powerful stress reliever. This technique can be beneficial to anyone, especially those seeking to meditate or minimize stress.

There’s sufficient evidence that intentional deep breathing can actually calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Which means that it is great to practice for conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

4-7-8 breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise, also called the relaxing breath, acts as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.

  1. First let your lips part and place and keep the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth
  2. Exhale through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound
  3. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to a mental count of four
  4. Count to seven while holding your breath
  5. Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight

When practiced regularly, this technique could help some people fall asleep in a shorter period of time as it’s designed to bring the body into a state of deep relaxation.

Relaxation practices like this help bring the body back into balance and regulate the fight-or-flight response we feel when we’re stressed. This is particularly helpful if you’re experiencing sleeplessness due to anxiety or worries throughout your day.

Lion’s breath

Lion’s breath, or simhasana in Sanskrit, is a playful practice where you stick out your tongue and roar like a lion!

It’s a helpful deep breathing practice that relaxes the muscles in your face and jaw, alleviates stress, and improves cardiovascular functioning.

  1. Inhale through your nose
  2. Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and stretch it down toward your chin
  3. Exhale forcefully, making a “ha” sound from deep within your belly
  4. Breathe normally for a few moments
  5. Repeat lion’s breath up to seven times

Alternate-nostril breathing

Alternate-nostril breathing involves blocking off one nostril at a time as you breathe through the other, alternating between nostrils in a regular pattern.

This relaxing practice helps reduce stress and anxiety, and allows you to be more mindful of the present moment.

  1. Inhale and exhale to begin
  2. Close off your right nostril with your thumb
  3. Inhale through your left nostril
  4. Close off your left nostril with your ring finger
  5. Open and exhale through your right nostril
  6. Repeat up to 10 times

Belly breathing

Belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is a breathing exercise that helps strengthen your diaphragm, an important muscle that enables you to breathe.

  1. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly
  2. Allow your belly to be completely relaxed
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose and into your abdomen, expanding your stomach, your chest remaining relatively still
  4. Exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips and feel your stomach gently contracting
  5. Repeat these steps several times

One of the biggest benefits of belly or diaphragmatic breathing is reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Being stressed keeps your immune system from working at full capacity. This can make you more susceptible to numerous conditions.

Pursed-lip breathing

Pursed-lip breathing is a simple breathing technique that will help make deep breaths slower and more intentional.

You do this after inhaling by puckering your lips and exhaling through them slowly and deliberately, often to a count.

  1. Inhale through your nose for two seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen (not just your lungs)
  2. Purse your lips and then breathe out slowly, taking twice as long to exhale as you took to breathe in
  3. Then repeat, and over time increase the inhale and exhale counts from 2 seconds to 4 seconds…

Pursed lip breathing gives you more control over your breathing. This technique has been found to help people who have anxiety associated with lung conditions like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Conclusion

The art of breathing is a powerful practice, and it is essential to listen to your body and be mindful of how stress may be impacting your everyday life.

Breathwork allows us to clear our minds and helps us focus, staying grounded to the earth. It fosters feelings of openness, love, peace, gratitude, clarity, communication, and connection.

Megan Binder

B.A Psychology

References:

Adele, T. (2022, August 8). 4 expert-backed breathing exercises for anxiety. Forbes. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/breathing-exercises-anxiety/

Ankrom, S. (2022, October 12). Deep breathing exercises to reduce anxiety. Verywell Mind. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/abdominal-breathing-2584115

Cronkleton, E. (2019, April 29). Breathwork Basics, uses, and types. Healthline. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/breathwork

Dittmar, G. (2022, July 7). The incredible power of the breath & how to tap into it on demand. mindbodygreen. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-breathwork-is

Healthline Media. (2018, February 5). Nervous system anatomy, Diagram & Function. Healthline. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/nervous-system#1

Kelly, M. (2022, June 16). 10 easy breathing exercises for anxiety. Verywell Health. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/breathing-exercises-for-anxiety-5088091

Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., Wei, G.-X., & Li, Y.-F. (2017, June 6). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/

Pursed lip breathing . | American Lung Association. (2020, February 27). Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/patient-resources-and-videos/pursed-lip-breathing-video

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