Breathing to Reduce Anxiety & Stress
Have you ever noticed the difference in your breathing when you are feeling stressed versus when you are feeling relaxed?
When you are feeling stressed, anxious, or panicked your breathing becomes shallow, you start taking in shorter breaths, or you may notice that you are even holding your breath at times.
When you are feeling relaxed and calm, like when you are just about to fall asleep, your breathing tends to be slower and deeper.
Breathing slowly and deeply actually sends a signal to your brain that it is time to calm down and unwind, which then causes your body to relax, lowering your heart rate and reducing muscle tension.
This is why breathing exercises that focus on slowing and deepening your breathing are an effective strategy to relieve anxiety and stress.
The great thing about breathing exercises is that they’re easy to learn and you can do them anytime or any place to get some relief. There are a number of different exercises that you can try, and some will work better for you than others, so it's worth trying a few of them out to see what works best.
Here are 5 breathing exercises to get you started:
Belly breathing (abdominal breathing)
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
Breathe in through your nose and into your belly, focusing on pushing your hand out without moving your chest. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
Breathe out through your mouth and notice your hand going in, gently pushing your belly inward.
Repeat this at least 10 times or as long as you’d like and notice how you feel.
Four by four breathing
Inhale slowly to the count of four.
Hold your breath to the count of four.
Exhale slowly to the count of four.
Hold your breath to the count of four.
Repeat the cycle for at least 30 seconds and notice how you feel.
Breathe normally, without trying to control your breath.
Notice how your body moves when you inhale and exhale.
Notice the feeling of the cool air coming into your nose as you inhale, notice the warm air as you exhale.
Stay focused on your breath for at least 30 seconds, or as long as you can. Simply slowing down to focus in on your breath can help pull your attention away from whatever was bothering you and help calm your nervous system down.
Variations: Close your eyes and imagine breathing in a cool color and breathing out a warm color. When you breathe in, say to yourself “calm”. When you breathe out, say to yourself “release.”
Enjoy this 10-minute guided meditation introducing you to mindful breathing and continue reading below for more breathing exercises to try.
Muscle relaxation breathing
Do a thorough scan through your body, starting at the top of your head and moving down your body all the way to your feet. Notice where you are feeling tension.
When you discover an area that feels tense, focus on it as you breathe in deeply, imagining that you are breathing oxygen directly into the muscles.
As you breathe out, focus on relaxing the muscles.
Repeat until you feel tension release.
Move your focus to another area of tension in your body and repeat.
Inhale slowly through your nose to the count of four.
Hold your breath for the count of 7.
Forcefully breathe out through your mouth as if you are blowing up a balloon for the count of 8.
Repeat for several rounds and notice how you feel.
Note: if you get light-headed or dizzy, stop and shorten the length of each breath - for example, try a 3-6-7 count or practice Four by Four breathing described above.
To get the most benefit out of these exercises try practicing them throughout the day, in times when you are feeling anxious or stressed and times when you are not. Try doing an exercise right before bed to help prepare yourself for sleep or first thing in the morning as you prepare for your day.
If you are having a hard time focusing on the exercises and feel like you could use some extra guidance, try a guided breathing meditation. You can easily find these by searching online, on YouTube, or on one of the many meditation apps that are out there.
As you work on your breathing more frequently you begin to train yourself to slow down, be more present, and calm your nervous system down. The more you practice, the more it becomes a part of your routine. And with any practice, it takes time. Be patient with it and know that with persistence you can find the relief you've been looking for.