When it comes to how to deal with anxiety, relaxation techniques like breathing exercises can be a powerful tool for anxiety relief and mental health management. Concentrating on your breathing helps distract you from unhealthy or anxious thoughts. Deep breathing exercises for anxiety are a way to relax the mind and reduce anxiety and stress levels in the body.
Learn how to use this free, easy — and most importantly, hugely effective — tactic to manage your anxiety here.
How Do Breathing Exercises Help Ease Anxiety?
Breathing is something most of us take for granted. It’s involuntary, instinctual, and something we do without even thinking — but the right breathing can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety. The way you breathe can change based on the emotions you feel. For example, you breathe slowly when you’re relaxed and more quickly when you’re anxious or scared.
You don’t just change how you breathe because you’re feeling a certain way, though. The opposite is true, too. Changing how you breathe can also actually change how you’re feeling. This is why it’s such an effective way to manage anxiety.
Research shows that breathing exercises and breathwork can immediately calm you down and improve your mood in periods of high stress. Studies even suggest that people who regularly use deep breathing exercises for anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can see a long-term improvement in anxiety symptoms.
Deep breathing treats the physical symptoms of anxiety, like slowing down a quickened heart rate and reducing trembling during an anxiety attack, but it also helps redirect the brain. When you’re feeling anxious, it can be hard to concentrate on anything else. When it comes to natural remedies for anxiety, breathing is a simple, repetitive task that helps you direct your thoughts, and, thus, focus your brain.
“Place a hand on your chest and one on your belly. Breathe in through your nose, allowing your lungs to fill with air to create a slight stretch. Exhale slowly through your mouth.”Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, MA, MSc, LMHC
Doing breathing exercises benefits the mind and body in many different ways. Some of the most immediate, obvious, and clear effects are:
It brings you to the present
When you’re anxious, it’s easy to obsess about the past or the present. Deep breathing is a way to practice mindfulness, a mental state that’s focused on what’s happening at the moment. Mindfulness breathing for anxiety can keep you from catastrophizing and allow you to focus on what’s happening now.
It immediately reduces stress, improving physical health
When anxiety levels spike, our bodies produce cortisol, a stress hormone that increases sugar in the bloodstream. While cortisol is designed to help the body react to stressful situations, high levels of the hormone can put you at increased risk for stroke and heart disease. Breathing exercises are a way to quickly bring your stress and blood pressure levels down, potentially avoiding negative health effects.
It lowers the heart rate
An elevated heart rate is a normal symptom of stress. When you breathe more slowly, your heart rate slows down too. Breathing techniques let your heart rate return to a normal, healthy level, even in times of extreme stress.
It gives your body more oxygen
Have you ever felt breathless when you’re anxious? Anxiety can cause you to breathe rapidly, exhaling a lot of carbon dioxide without bringing in enough oxygen. Taking slow, deep breaths means your body is getting more oxygen, keeping you from feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
7 Anxiety-Easing Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises are something you can do anywhere, whether you’re at home, in the office, in a long line, or even while driving. There are several different breathing exercises for anxiety, which means you can find the method that you like and that works best for you. The next time you feel stressed or anxious, try implementing one of these deep breathing techniques.
1. 4-7-8 breathing
For some, this is considered a “more advanced” breathing technique, but don’t let that scare you. It really is easy to learn and use.
To do the 4-7-8 technique, keep your mouth closed and breathe in through your nose while counting to 4. Hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale slowly through the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat.
Since you’ll be focusing on both your breathing and counting, this exercise of mindfulness breathing for anxiety is great, especially for those with sleep anxiety.
“The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is an effective way to calm the nervous system. You can do this while lying in bed or in a seated position. The way to do it is to breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds.” – Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC
2. 2-to-1 breathing (diaphragmatic breathing)
If the 4-7-8 technique feels like it’s too much at first, start with this more basic deep breathing exercise, known as 2-to-1, or diaphragmatic breathing.
Just slowly inhale through your nose, keeping your shoulders relaxed, for a count to 4. Then, exhale through your mouth, keeping your lips pursed like you would if you were blowing air through a straw, for a count to 8. This is known as controlled breathing or pursed-lip breathing, and it goes hand-in-hand with diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, helps you breathe through your diaphragm, so you use less energy while inhaling and exhaling. Studies show that 2-to-1 breathing creates a physiological change in the body, altering how the autonomic nervous system functions. It’s particularly effective if you’re ever hyperventilating or having a panic attack.
3. Mindful breathing
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient technique that helps you be present and in the moment. As you inhale and exhale, try to focus all your attention on one thing. This could be your breathing, a sound, something hanging on the wall, or a positive phrase you repeat to yourself. If you notice your mind start to wander, that’s OK (it’s also pretty common, so go easy on yourself). Just gently redirect your attention back toward your focus. Allow yourself to relax and appreciate the moment. During mindful breathing exercises, use slow, deep breaths, both when inhaling and exhaling.
4. Deep hold breathing
For this deep breathing exercise, stand up straight and then bend forward slightly, allowing your arms to dangle. As you inhale, return to a standing position. Hold your breath for a few seconds. Then lean forward again as you exhale. This breathing exercise is a fantastic way to stretch the body and ease muscle tension.
5. Alternate nostril breathing
Use your fingers to press one nostril closed. Inhale deeply, taking in the air through the open nostril. Hold your breath for 1 second, then cover the opposite nostril as you exhale. Alternate nostril breathing is known to reduce stress and improve respiratory function.
6. Resonance breathing
Close your eyes and lie down in a comfortable place. With your mouth closed, try to inhale through your nose for 6 seconds, and then exhale for another 6 seconds. Breathe slowly and focus on staying relaxed. You can continue this exercise for up to 10 minutes.
7. Box breathing
Box breathing, or 4-square breathing, is so effective the Navy SEALs use it regularly to remain calm when they’re in high-stress situations. To practice box breathing, exhale slowly, trying to release all the air in your lungs. While counting to 4, inhale through your nose. Hold the breath for 4 seconds, and then exhale for another count of 4. You can repeat this 4-step breathing technique until you’re calm.
When Breathing Exercises Don’t Provide Enough Help
Breathing exercises for anxiety can be an excellent tool for anxiety management, but they might not always be enough. While breathing techniques can help you relax when you’re feeling anxious, they’re not a cure for anxiety. If your anxiety is interfering with your ability to sleep, concentrate, work or go to school, or just enjoy life, you may need professional help.
There are many effective treatments for anxiety, including therapy and medication. Online therapy options like the platform Talkspace make getting help for anxiety easy and affordable. Best of all, we make it convenient. You can even get therapy for anxiety from the comfort of your own home.
Even if you decide to seek out professional help, though, remember that breathing exercises can still be of value. Use them to control your anxiety and keep it at a manageable level any time you’re stressed or anxious. Before work presentations or a big test or performance, if you’re in a heated discussion or argument with a friend or partner, when you’re late getting to an appointment — any time you’re feeling like anxiety is taking over, knowing these techniques will be a powerful tool to keep in your back pocket.
Anxiety doesn’t have to keep you from living a happy and satisfying life. Now you know how to take back control.