Breathing Exercises for Anxiety: Relief Too Easy to Avoid

Breathing Exercises for Anxiety: Relief Too Easy to Avoid

On any given day, I might avoid half a dozen ways of relieving anxiety.

Zone out for 5 minutes first thing in the morning? I can’t wait that long to check the news or Busy Phillips’ Instagram stories. Go for a walk? I might have to avoid the neighbor I hate (or, inconceivably worse, talk to the neighbor I like). Do yoga? I’m too tired. Meditate? I’m too restless. Journal? I’ve been writing all day. Go to sleep early? I’ve only binge-watched two episodes of Project Runway season 7 that aired in 2010.

Breathing exercises for anxiety are the exception.

While it did take me years to make myself learn them, now that I know them, I find myself turning to breathing exercises pretty regularly. Because I don’t have to get up or get ready to do them. I can stay seated, or standing, or lying down. I don’t have to commit to my 20-minute yoga practice, or a 10-minute walk around the block, or even a 5-minute meditation. Just 60 seconds of breathing exercises for anxiety feels good.

Why breathing exercises help with anxiety

“It’s difficult to be tense and to breathe from your abdomen at the same time,” says Dr. Edmund J. Bourne in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook.1

Thus, the benefit of breathing exercises for anxiety, as they focus on abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, or deep breathing.

“Under tension, your breathing usually becomes shallow and rapid, and your breathing occurs high in the chest. When relaxed, you breathe more fully, more deeply, and from your abdomen.”2

More specifically, Bourne says abdominal breathing:

  • Increases oxygen supply to the brain and musculature
  • Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system’s (that’s the “rest and digest” response, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight”)
  • Creates greater feelings of connectedness between mind and body
  • Helps with more efficient excretion of bodily toxins
  • Improves concentration
  • Triggers the relaxation response3

So do your breathing exercises in response to feeling anxious, but also work this form of deep relaxation into your daily self-care routine. “After several weeks of practicing deep relaxation once per day,” says Bourne, “you will tend to feel more relaxed all the time.”4

How to breathe from your diaphragm

Every abdominal breathing exercise comes with its own set of instructions, but there is one important guideline that applies to all:

Breathe from your diaphragm.

To make sure you’re breathing from your diaphragm, place your right hand on your abdomen (which is just under your rib cage) and your left hand on your chest. The idea is that, when you inhale, your abdomen will rise (and your right hand with it), while your chest (and left hand) will stay relatively still.

Once you’ve practiced diaphragmatic breathing, you won’t need to keep your hands on your abdomen and chest to know you’re breathing right; you’ll just feel it.

Breathing exercises for anxiety

Calming breath exercise

Dr. Bourne recommends this one in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. “The Calming Breath Exercise was adapted from the ancient discipline of yoga,” he says. “It is a very efficient technique for achieving a deep state of relaxation quickly.”5

How to do it

  1. Count to 5 on the inhale (through your nose)
  2. Hold for 5
  3. Count to 5 on the exhale (through your nose or mouth)
  4. Take two normal breaths
  5. Repeat the cycle 10 times (or set your timer and repeat for 3 to 5 minutes)

4-7-8 breathing

This one comes highly recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil. In a video of him demonstrating the exercise, Dr. Weil has this to say of 4-7-8 breathing:

“After doing this for 4 to 6 weeks, you can begin trying to use it for things. If somebody says something that pushes your button, you do this exercise before you react. It’s a great way to deal with cravings. It’s a great way to help you fall asleep….

After two months, three months of regular practice, there are very significant changes that happen with physiology. This lowers heart rate. It lowers blood pressure. Improves digestion. It’s a very powerful anti-anxiety measure. In fact, much more powerful than the anti-anxiety drugs that are commonly prescribed.”

How to do it

  1. Exhale completely (through your mouth)
  2. Place the tip of your tongue where your top teeth meet your gums and keep it there
  3. Count to 4 on the inhale (through your nose)
  4. Hold for 7
  5. Count to 8 on the exhale (through your mouth)*
  6. Repeat four times
  7. Do it twice a day

*Exhaling without moving your tongue from its spot behind your teeth feels weird. The more you purse your lips, the easier it is. Watch his video and you’ll see what I mean.

Alternate nostril breathing

Though it may look and sound strange at first, alternate nostril breathing — a yoga technique also known as Nadi Shodhana — feels natural and, most importantly, relaxing once you get the hang of it.

Of all the breathing exercises, this is one you are probably going to want to see a demonstration of. Search YouTube and you’ll find plenty of them, but I’m partial to YouTuber Meghan Livingstone’s demo. Skip to the 5:47 mark if you want to get right to it, but then you’ll miss the first three minutes of her talking about how deep breathing has helped her anxiety, which I really enjoyed. She also demonstrates a couple of other exercises you may want to try (pursed lip breathing at 3:08 and equal breathing at 4:25).

How to Do It

  1. Cover your right nostril with your right thumb
  2. Inhale through your left nostril
  3. Release your thumb (while still holding the breath)
  4. Cover your left nostril with your ring finger*
  5. Exhale through your right nostril
  6. Inhale through your right nostril
  7. Release your ring finger (while still holding the breath)
  8. Cover your right nostril with your right thumb
  9. Exhale through the left nostril
  10. Repeat steps 2 through 9
  11. Do this for 1 to 5 minutes

*I find using my ring finger really uncomfortable so I use my index finger instead.

Meghan also has some good advice on breathing exercises in general:

“When you’re doing deep breathing, there’s obviously lots of different methods in the way of how many seconds you inhale, how many seconds you exhale, and there’s lots of different ways to go about it that way. But I think that the best way for you to do it is what feels most comfortable and the most calming for you.

“So, sometimes I like to just take an inhale for five seconds and maybe I’ll exhale for eight seconds. Or sometimes I’ll switch it up a bit or just kind of flow with what’s working to call me down…. Just kind of go with it and just listen to your body and how you feel the best.

Breath counting

Instead of counting the duration of every inhale and exhale (like you do in the calming breath and 4-7-8 breathing exercises described above), in this breathing exercise, you are counting the number of breath cycles, and only up to five.

It is deceptively simple,” says Dr. Weil in his breath counting video demonstration. “It’s very easy to find yourself up to 25 or 30 before you realize that you’re not focused on your breath. So the idea is just counting the exhalations up to 5, return to 1, and whenever you notice that your attention has strayed from doing that, you bring it back.”

How to do it

  1. Breathe in normally (through your nose)
  2. Breathe out normally (through your nose)
  3. Count every exhale
  4. Start over when you have counted to 5

What about you?

Do you have any breathing exercises that you find helpful for anxiety? If so, please share. And if you try any of these, let me know how you like them.

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  1. Bourne PhD, Edmund J. (2015) The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, p. 89, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  2. Bourne, pp. 88-89.
  3. Bourne, p. 89.
  4. Bourne, p. 87.
  5. Bourne, p. 92.

Graduate student at Antioch Los Angeles working on an M.A. in Clinical Psychology. Writing background covering mental health, financial literacy, and social issues. Creative writing, too--plays, screenplays, and currently chipping away at a short story collection.

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