3 Breathing Techniques to Ease Anxiety

By Caitlin B.

One of the greatest misconceptions about anxiety is that it’s a strictly psychological phenomenon. But for many people, anxiety is a full-body experience. Many people who suffer from anxiety also report that they have physical—or somatic—symptoms. These symptoms often include chest pain, shaking or tremor, or heart palpitations. But one of the most common—and distressing—symptoms is shortness of breath.

Anxiety and difficulty breathing

Some anxiety sufferers have described their symptoms as a kind of “air hunger”. While that isn’t a formal medical term, it’s an accurate description for many people.

Anxiety-induced shortness of breath can make you feel as if you aren’t taking in enough oxygen. Some people with anxiety feel like they have lost the ability to breathe automatically. They may feel as if they need to focus on each individual breath or they won’t be able to breathe properly. Unfortunately, this is a symptom I’m all too familiar with!

Of course, the human body knows how to regulate its own breathing. It’s impossible to “forget” to breathe. And unless there is something seriously wrong with a person’s heart or lungs, normal breathing provides plenty of oxygen. In fact, people who suffer from anxiety may be at risk of taking in too much oxygen. This is called hyperventilation.

If your anxiety disrupts your natural breathing patterns, breathing techniques can provide some relief. These exercises can slow down and deepen your breathing, which may ease physical symptoms of anxiety. By placing conscious focus on your breathing, you may also find that you’re able to distract yourself from any upsetting stimuli that are triggering your anxiety.

Need a few suggestions for breathing exercises? Check out these three anxiety-busting breathing techniques:

Abdominal breathing

Take a moment to place your left hand on your chest over your heart. Place your right hand on your stomach, just above your belly button. Now take a deep breath. Which hand moved more?

Surprise! According to experts, it should’ve been your right hand!

Most of us think of breathing as something that takes place in the chest. But abdominal—or diaphragmatic—breathing helps ease anxiety and stress during tense moments.

To practice abdominal breathing, rest one hand lightly over your upper belly and breathe in slowly. Try to breathe into the area around your hand, keeping your chest relatively still. Maintain a normal breathing pattern and try to avoid taking abnormally deep breaths.

4-7-8 breathing

Many anxiety sufferers find that counting their breaths helps ease their anxiety. If you’re focused on counting your breaths, it’s harder to let your mind wander to the things that are upsetting you. 4-7-8 breathing is a simple variation on this idea.

To begin, exhale gently. Then inhale slowly through your nose, while silently counting to four. Hold your breath for the count of seven. Next, exhale through your mouth to the count of eight. Try to blow your breath out through pursed lips, making a soft whooshing sound.

Does it look a little silly? Maybe! But it’s an excellent way to regulate your breathing. It may also help take your mind off whatever is intensifying your feelings of anxiety. 

Alternate nostril breathing

Another effective technique that may look or sound a bit odd is alternate nostril breathing. Strange as it may seem, this is a classic yogic breathing technique. People who practice yoga or meditate often use this technique to start or deepen their meditation. 

To get started, take your right hand and lightly press your index and middle finger against the area between your eyebrows. Rest your thumb against the side of your right nostril and your ring finger against the side of your left nostril.

Take a breath, and then use your thumb to close off your right nostril. Exhale through the left nostril. Breathe in through the left nostril. Next, use your ring finger to close off your left nostril. Exhale through your right nostril. Then breathe in, and switch nostrils again.

Use gentle pressure and try to breathe normally. Most practitioners do a set number of “cycles”, usually between 5-10.

Finding the right breathing exercise for you

Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the breathing pattern that works best for you. Remember that learning to perform breathing exercises may take some time. Set aside a few minutes each day for practice.

Breathing exercises can be beneficial even for those who don’t suffer from anxiety. Many public figures report that they use breathing techniques to prepare for interviews or before speaking to a crowd.

If you’ve found breathing exercises helpful, share them with family and friends! You never know who might need a little help with relaxation.

Do you practice any breathing exercises? Which one is your favorite? Share your experiences in the comments below!


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