Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the world. In fact, 1 in 4 people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. While anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, too much of it can affect your sleep, relationships, and overall well-being. That’s why it’s important to have tools and strategies to reach for when you begin to feel anxious — one of the best ones being breathing exercises for anxiety.
Breathing exercises are a natural and accessible way to calm down when you feel a wave of anxiety coming on. Breathing exercises ease anxiety symptoms by regulating the body and making you feel grounded. There are many different types of breathing exercises for anxiety that serve different purposes. We recommend trying a few to determine which is best for you.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a stress response. It’s the feeling of worry, nervousness or unease that you get when facing a situation that feels challenging or unsafe. Anxiety is often future-focused — it’s a physiological response to situations that haven’t yet occurred but are anticipated as a possible threat.
Although it might feel unnecessary and uncomfortable, there is a biological purpose for anxiety. It’s the body’s natural alarm system meant to protect you from danger. This fight-or-flight response puts you in a state to deal with stress and allows you to react quickly to emergencies or danger. For our ancestors, this meant fighting wild animals or fleeing from life-threatening environments. Whereas for us, anxiety can kick in when dealing with daily stressors like an important presentation at work or a big social event. Everyone feels anxiety differently but there are symptoms to look out for.
Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on edge.
- Being easily fatigued.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Having headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or unexplained pains.
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry.
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep.
If left untreated, GAD may progress to the point of experiencing panic attacks — a sudden feeling of discomfort, terror, or fear.
Panic attacks symptoms include:
- Feeling a loss of control.
- Pounding or racing heart.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Nausea or upset stomach.
- Lightheadedness or dizziness.
Panic attacks can last from just a few minutes to 30 minutes and can be extremely taxing on the body’s energy levels. Experiencing recurring panic attacks can be a symptom of Panic Disorder. However, it’s also possible to experience a panic attack with no diagnosed mental health disorder.
If you’re dealing with anxiety or panic attacks, breathing exercises are an extremely helpful tool to calm your nervous system. Just a few minutes of breathing spreads oxygen throughout your body — leading to a clearer mind and calmer body. Next time you are feeling anxious try anxiety breathing exercises.
Treatments for anxiety
While medication is available, there are many non-medication treatments that have been shown to effectively reduce anxiety symptoms — breathing exercises for anxiety being one of them.
Another is mindfulness-based interventions that help you become aware of thoughts and emotions. These are shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. The most practiced mindfulness exercise is meditation. Meditation can provide relief from both internalized struggles and external stressors like noise pollution from things like ringing phones, notifications, or loud work environments.
Yoga is another way to naturally calm anxiety. Yoga synchs movement with breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breaths, which can lead to lower stress levels. It can also relieve muscle tension caused by everyday activities like sitting at a desk all day long. Those who regularly practise yoga use it to recalibrate the body and mind.
Deep breathing is an integral part of both of these practices. In mindfulness, the primary way to calm the mind is by focusing on the breath. And in yoga, movement is set to ebb and flow with the breath. Knowing how to breathe effectively is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to calm anxiety.
The effects of breathing on anxiety
Breathing exercises are a great way to calm the mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and manage other mental health issues.
- Activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that lowers blood pressure, heart rate and other physical functions when we’re relaxed — like when we’re sleeping or digesting.
- Reduce feelings of panic or fear by helping you better cope with scary or stressful situations. A calmer mind means more control over your emotions.
- Boost mood by increasing serotonin levels in the brain—helping you feel calmer while conserving energy levels. When the brain and body aren’t on overdrive, that energy can go towards regulating emotions and controlling your thought processes.
- Reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle strain.
The beauty of deep breathing exercises for anxiety is that they can be done anywhere. Once you’ve tried a few variations, pick 2-3 favourites and remember them the next time you feel stress coming on.
How to breathe for anxiety
Before you try breathing exercises to relax anxiety, you’ll want to ensure you’re breathing properly. While it might sound basic, most people are used to shallow chest breathing — which can lead to more tension and anxiety. Instead, try diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. This is a deeper form of breath that requires you to expand and contract your abdomen while inhaling and exhaling. According to the American Institute of Stress, 20 to 30 minutes of belly breathing each day can reduce stress and anxiety. This can feel unnatural at first, especially if you’re used to shallower breaths. But this is one of the best ways to ensure your brain and body are getting the oxygen they need.
If you’re not sure whether you’re breathing from your chest or your diaphragm, try this simple exercise to find out. Place one hand on your upper abdomen in line with your waist. Place the other in the middle of your chest. Begin to breathe as you normally would, but take note of which hand raises the most. That hand with more movement is your dominant breathing style.
Practice belly breathing
It’s possible to shift from shallow chest breaths to deep belly breaths with practice.
- Get in a comfortable position. It’s best to sit with your legs crossed, on a chair with your feet planted, or lay down on your back with your legs sprawled forward.
- Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your stomach in line with your waist.
- Breathe in through your nose and pay attention to the rise of your stomach. There should be minimal movement in your chest.
- Purse your lips and gently exhale through your mouth, engaging your stomach muscles at the end of the breath.
- Repeat this until it feels natural and rhythmic.
Practice this a few times a day for best results. The more often you try this, the more natural it’ll become. The goal is to shift from chest breathing to belly breaths — giving your body more opportunities for relaxation.
8 Breathing exercises for anxiety
Feeling anxious? Try these exercises to calm your mind and body.
1. 444 Breathing Technique
Also called box breathing, this involves repeating the same breathing pattern for 4 counts. Start by sitting in a comfortable seat with your feet planted on the floor. Ideally, you’ll want a chair with back support. Sit up tall and settle in.
- Breathe in through the nose while counting to 4. Inhale slowly and steadily while focusing on the feeling of air entering your lungs.
- Hold the breath in your lungs and count to 4.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth while counting to 4.
- Pause 4 four counts.
- Repeat this breathing technique until you’re feeling calmer.
If you find this challenging or uncomfortable, start with 3 counts for each step and work your way up to 4.
2. Progressive relaxation
Anxiety can cause your muscles to become so tense that sometimes you don’t even know you’re going about your day clenched up. Progressive relaxation helps you become mindful of what a relaxed muscle feels like. Over time, you’ll develop an instinctive feel for when your body needs time to relax. Dialling into physical symptoms of anxiety like muscle tension can also act as an alarm — alerting you that you may be more anxious than you’re consciously aware of. Incorporate deep breathing into this exercise for ultimate relaxation.
- Find a comfortable position where you can sit or lie down. Feel free to incorporate pillows or blankets for ultimate comfort.
- Close your eyes or keep them slightly open with soft focus (not staring at any one thing).
- First, you’ll tense a specific part of the body, and follow by releasing the tension.
- Start with your neck and shoulders — tense them up to your ears, then relax them back down.
- Breathe in as you tense, and breathe out as you relax.
- Continue this process down the body. Feel free to take a little extra time on certain muscle groups.
- Once you finish from head to toe, see if any parts of the body need a few more rounds. It may take a few cycles before you feel fully relaxed.
Take your time with this process — it should feel good! Once complete, enjoy the newly found relaxation by sitting or lying in a comfortable position for a while. This is also the perfect opportunity to take a short nap. You can even do this in bed before falling asleep — it’s sure to improve your quality of sleep.
3. Lion’s breath
You may have tried this in a yoga class. Lion’s breath lowers stress while enhancing your mindfulness practice. It also has physical benefits like improving sleep, increasing lung capacity, and lowering blood pressure. It’s an expressive way to relax and loosen up — you’re almost guaranteed to crack a smile during this breathing exercise for stress and anxiety.
- This can be done in a seated or standing position, but is most often practiced in a cross-legged position on the floor.
- Soften your gaze or close your eyes.
- Inhale through your nose. Open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out, stretching it towards your chin.
- Forcefully exhale, making a ‘ha’ sound — use your deep belly breathing space to produce this noise.
- Put your tongue back in your mouth and breathe normally for a few moments.
- Repeat 5 times.
- Finish with deep breathing or short meditation practice.
Ready to take this to the next level? Before you begin, think of something that no longer serves you that you’d like to release during the exhale. Use this practice to get rid of old thoughts, feelings, or habits that you no longer wish to hold onto.
4. Pursed-lip breathing
This is a simple breathing exercise for anxiety that can be done anywhere and anytime. This technique helps you slow down and get into a wave of intentional breaths.
- Relax your neck and shoulders.
- Inhale through your nostrils while keeping your mouth closed.
- Before you exhale, pucker your lips as if giving a kiss. Slowly and gently push out air through your mouth.
- Repeat this process 4-5 times or as many cycles as you need to feel relaxed.
This is one of the most accessible breathing exercises because of its subtleness and simplicity. If you feel a wave of anxiety coming on in public, this is a great exercise to reach for — no one will even notice.
5. Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is another technique often used in yoga for its calming and centering benefits.
- Start in a comfortable seat with your eyes closed or gazing softly. It may help your focus to gaze downward.
- Start with one full inhale and exhale to cleanse and prepare your lungs.
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale and exhale through your left nostril.
- Using the same hand, close off your left nostril with your ring finger. Inhale and exhale through your right nostril.
- Repeat this for 10 rounds.
This type of breathing takes some getting used to — so remember to start small and slow. If you begin to feel lightheaded, take a break and breathe normally through both nostrils.
6. 4-7-8 breathing technique
The longer cycles of this breathing technique can make you feel lightheaded, so ensure you’re sitting or laying down before beginning.
- Empty your lungs of air
- Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
- Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
- Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
- Repeat the cycle up to 4 times
If you feel lightheaded during the practice, stop the technique to take a break, or modify the length of breaths until you feel comfortable. Repeat this at least twice a day to begin to see benefits. As with any other healthy habit, the longer and more frequently your practice this breathing exercise for anxiety, the more effective it is.
7. Resonance breathing
This breathing exercise for anxiety has a regulating effect on the nervous system and circulatory system. It calms the body’s fight and flight response and stimulates the vagus nerve — the part of your body responsible for a ‘rest and digest’ response. When you’re breathing at resonance frequency, all these systems in the body begin working together more cohesively, leading to less stress and anxiety.
- Lie down and close your eyes.
- Close your mouth and begin gently inhaling through your nose for 6 seconds. Avoid filling your lungs too full of air — breathe in until your lungs feel full but not overexpanded.
- Exhale gently and naturally, without forcing air out of your lungs.
- Continue this breathing pattern for up to 10 minutes.
- If it feels natural, take a few extra minutes to rest and practice mindfulness before going about your day.
Try this next time you’re hoping to get into a relaxed state.
8. Breath focus
This deep breathing exercise for anxiety brings the focus on mindfulness through slow and intentional breaths. Not only is this physically beneficial, pushing more oxygen through the body, but it also helps you create separation from negative thought patterns. Try breath focus next time you’re feeling anxious.
- Sit in a comfortable seat.
- Start with your regular breathing pattern. Scan your body to see how this feels. You might notice tension or discomfort you’ve never felt in day-to-day life.
- Choose a word to focus on during your exhalation. This should be something that puts you at ease like ‘calm’, ‘safe’, or ‘content’.
- Now, take a slow deep breath through your nose. Notice how the air expands in your body.
- When you exhale, visualize the calming word you’ve chosen. Let the peaceful feelings wash over your body as you gently push air out of your lungs. If it feels good, let out a sigh during your exhale.
- Repeat this for another round. On your net exhale, imagine breathing out negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviours that no longer serve you.
- Continue to repeat this cycle until you feel calm.
Getting distracted during this process is normal. Your mind is used to being busy and wandering and it’ll take practice to focus your thoughts. If you do get carried away, bring your attention back to your breath. You can even focus on the sensation of your breath, like the cool air entering your nostrils and warm air being pushed out.
There’s a breathing exercise for everyone
Everyone is different — a breathing exercise for anxiety that worked wonders for a loved one may not be the most effective for you. We recommend trying multiple kinds of breathing exercises for anxiety to find your best fit. How will you know what the best breathing exercise is for you? Look out for feelings of calm, contentment, reduced stress, and a regular heart rate. Make note of which exercises give you these feelings, and reach for them the next time you feel a wave of stress or anxiety coming on.
While breathing exercises can help you cope with waves of anxiety, they’re not a cure. If you’re finding it hard to cope with anxiety, it’s important to get support as early as possible. Waiting too long to get help makes it more difficult to regulate anxiety, and can cause your nervous system a lot of stress. If you need help getting started with breathing techniques or are looking for other anxiety remedies to pair with breathing, a counsellor can help you reach your goals. They’ll provide actionable tools, resources, and strategies to navigate anxiety. Over time, you’ll get better at regulating your emotions — reducing the frequency and intensity of anxiety. Wellin5 pairs you with an online counsellor that’s specialized in your specific needs, so you can feel better faster. The convenience of online means you can take appointments anytime, in any environment that you’re comfortable with. Get started with online therapists who are highly specialized in anxiety counselling.