In case you need to take a breather.
While you can’t necessarily eliminate the laundry list of stressors going on in the world right now, you can implement strategies to help manage your own emotions to decrease your anxiety. And there’s something you already do all day, every day, that is an excellent tool to tap into: your breath. Yep, breathing exercises for anxiety have gone mainstream during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as many people have found after trying them out, these stress-busting techniques can really come in handy whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed.
ICYMI, anxiety is pretty normal. It’s the most common mental illness in the United States, and it impacts nearly 40 million adults in the country each year, per the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (That’s just over 18 percent of the population!)
So, how exactly does breathing help? Turns out how you breathe can affect your heart rate, blood pressure, and nervous system, all of which play a role in your body’s anxiety and stress levels, explains Rachel L. Goldman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice who is also a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
For example, shallow breathing typically involves drawing just a bit of air into your lungs, and taking shorter and faster breaths through your mouth (think: using only your upper chest to breathe). Engaging in this type of breathing can typically cause stress, panic, anxiety, tension, and pain, as it signals to your body that it’s in its “flight” response, Goldman explains.
Deep breathing, on the other hand, usually draws air deep into your lungs through your nose, and uses your chest to bring air into your diaphragm. The result? You’re able to get more oxygen into your brain and reduce your blood pressure and heart rate. Plus, it signals to your body that you can relax, that you’re safe, which is what makes it great for relieving anxiety, says Goldman.
How do breathing exercises help relieve anxiety?
In short, breathing exercises can help with lowering your overall stress and anxiety levels and preventing them from spiking. The key is to practice them regularly, not just when you’re experiencing an anxious moment, Goldman says.
“I typically recommend to my clients that they practice a few times daily, such as first thing in the morning and right before bed,” he says, taking as many breaths as you need to feel calmer. That averages at about three to four breaths, according to Goldman.
FYI, you set the tone for your entire day by taking a moment for yourself to pause and relax when you wake up, Goldman explains. Doing so before bed can help you regroup and get into a restful state before sleep too.
Once you feel confident in your ability to do these exercises, you can start to implement them specifically during stressful times, Goldman says. Ultimately, taking these deep breaths is the fastest way to get to a physiologically zen state.
10 Breathing Exercises To Relieve Anxiety
Now, let’s get into the specifics. Here are some breathing exercises for anxiety that you can try, according to experts.
1. Box Breathing
Also called four-square breathing, box breathing is a basic exercise that can engage both your mind and body, Goldman says, which makes this great for psychological distraction as intervention and slowing the body down during stress.
- Start by inhaling for a count of four seconds.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Then exhale for a count of four.
- Optional: Close your eyes and envision building and breaking down a one-dimensional square box as you go.
This exercise is a little trickier to remember, so don’t pressure yourself to attempt it unless you’re a seasoned deep-breather. That said, it can help you relax your nervous system and work through stress, since you breathe out and focus on your breath for twice as long as you’re breathing in.
- Sit in a chair or comfortable position.
- Start by completely exhaling out of your mouth.
- Inhale into your nose for four seconds.
- Hold that breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds.
3. Triangle breathing
Similar to box breathing, triangle breathing requires you to count your breaths and visualize a certain shape in your mind, says Women’s Health advisor Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York. If you feel like too many numbers is confusing, this one is for you because you won’t need to go above three.
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Breathe in through your nose for three counts.
- Hold your breath for three counts.
- Breathe out through your mouth for three counts.
- Optional: Close your eyes and envision building and breaking down a one-dimensional triangle as you go.
4. Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is Goldman’s personal and professional go-to. It focuses on your diaphragm, which might feel uncomfortable at first since you could be used to shallow breathing at your chest. It’s super approachable for beginners who might not know how to properly deep breathe and need to learn, adds Goldman.
- Start by placing one hand on your chest and one on your diaphragm (though you don’t *need* to involve your hands if you don’t want to).
- Take a breath in through your nose.
- Make sure your belly is expanding as you breathe in.
- Pause for a moment.
- Then, breathe out through your mouth.
5. Tactical Breathing
Breathing through your nostrils instead of your mouth is one tactic that can help you breathe more deeply and slow down the breath, says Carmichael. “With this method, your mind focuses on the breathing through your nose and counting, which helps you home in on a different script rather than panicking or remaining anxious,” she explains.
- Find a comfortable seated position.
- Inhale through your nose for four seconds.
- Pause for a moment.
- Exhale through your nose for four seconds.
6. Straw Breathing
If your temp rises when you get anxious, you might want to consider a breathing technique that can bring it back down. Straw breathing is one of those practices, Carmichael explains, as it brings about a cooling sensation through the mouth.
- Contort your mouth into a tight “O,” as if you’re blowing a kiss. Optional: Grab an actual straw to breathe through.
- Inhale through the straw or “O” shape.
- Pause for a beat.
- Exhale through the straw or “O” shape.
7. Mantra Breathing
If you’re having trouble using the traditional breathing exercises to re-center yourself, sometimes it can be helpful to add some words to drive the point of relaxation home and draw your attention to the breath, says Goldman.
- Say the words “breathe in” to yourself (Or another mantra you want to repeat).
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Pause for a moment.
- Say the words “breathe out” to yourself.
- Breathe out through your mouth.
8. Breath of Fire
Have you hit it that four o’clock slump and need a burst of energy to make it through the rest of the day? Then this one is perfect for you, says Patrick K. Porter, PhD, a mindfulness expert and the creator of BrainTap. Feeling tired but needing to continue going about your day can often be a source of stress and anxiety, and this invigorating technique can recharge your battery enough to last through the day.
- Inhale through your nose as rapidly as possible.
- Hold in your stomach, pulling your navel tight toward your back.
- Keeping your stomach tight, exhale through your nose as quickly as you can.
- Continue breathing in and out in rapid succession about 15 to 20 times or, alternatively, until you run out of breath.
- Pause for a moment.
- Take a few deep breaths, then repeat exercise up to five times.
9. Finger Breathing
Goldman recommends this exercise for anyone who feels like they just can’t get out of their own head and struggle with being present. It brings all of your senses together, and is more of an all-consuming experience than the others, which largely focus on breathwork.
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Put your left hand facing palm-up on your lap.
- As you breathe in, with your right hand, trace up your thumb with one finger.
- As you breathe out, trace your thumb in a downward motion.
- Trace through all five fingers or until you feel calm.
10. Cocoon Breathing
If you’re in need of some serious tension relief, try the cocoon breath, says Carmichael. This technique gives people a sense of “privacy, boundaries, and deep exhalation,” Carmichael notes, so it’s great for when you’re feeling that you need a moment to yourself to regroup.
- Inhale with your eyes open.
- Pause for a moment.
- Exhale, closing your eyes.
- As you exhale, envision that you are drawing a curtain down over yourself.
- Repeat this as many times as needed, and with each exhale, imagine that you are enveloping yourself deeper with each breath.
Okay, now that you have some breathing exercises for anxiety at your disposal, it’s time for you to put them into practice. If it’s a struggle when you try for the first time, just stop and try again in a day or two. Learning breathing techniques is a process that you don’t need to rush!
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