Anxiety is like having a mice infestation in your apartment: It pops its head out whenever it pleases, makes you feel helpless and vulnerable, and feels impossible to get under control — let alone rid of entirely.
But you may be surprised to learn that one of the best tools to combat that jittery pest is something we do all day every day: breathing. But with intention and patterns.
We know — it sounds too basic to actually be helpful against the chaos raging inside your head. But using breathing exercises for anxiety is actually a natural yin-and-yang balance.
Here’s why: “Anxiety triggers your sympathetic nervous system, or SNS” — that’s your fight-or-flight response — “and sends adrenaline and stress hormones throughout your body,” explains Koya Webb, holistic health coach, yoga instructor, and breathwork coach based in Marina Del Rey, CA.
You start sweating, your breath becomes more shallow and harder to draw, your mouth gets dry, and your heart starts beating out of your chest. This sets off a chain reaction: You become fixated on the unwanted physical discomfort, and that creates more anxiety, Webb adds.
Breathing is one of our body’s natural antidotes: "Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain, helps slow your heart rate, and stabilizes your blood pressure," Webb explains. Together, these activate your parasympathetic nervous system — the balance to your SNS which promotes a state of relaxation and calm.
What’s more, focusing your attention on your breathing automatically pulls you away from that constant internal stream of thoughts, allowing you to break the cycle of perpetuation, explains Sherry Benton, Ph.D., founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, an online therapy platform.
It’s shockingly simple — but highly effective: Deepening your breathing even for a moment can help soothe your anxiety and calm your panic, adds New York-based mindfulness and stress management coach Colette Ellis.
Whether you’ve been bogged down by anxious feelings first thing in the morning, throughout the day, or before you go to sleep at night, we’ve got the breathwork techniques to help. Check out the 7 best breathing exercises to calm anxiety.
The Daily Practice
All our experts advise starting your morning and ending your evening with a few rounds of diaphragmatic breathing. Not only will this help your in-the-moment breathwork become more effective and efficient when you’re feeling really anxious, but it can also help you center yourself and ease the jitters before you start the day or head to sleep, Benton adds.
And practicing diaphragmatic breathing is really the key to every state of calm: Most people breathe with their chest, but tapping into the power of full diaphragmatic breathing better oxygenates your body and calms your nervous system, Webb explains.
Try it: Sit in a comfortable position or lie flat on the floor or bed. Relax your shoulders. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose for two seconds. Feel the air move through your nostrils and into your abdomen. Your stomach should expand while your chest stays still. Purse your lips like you’re going to drink through a straw, press gently on your stomach with your hand, and exhale slowly over two seconds. Repeat at least 5 times.
When you need anxiety relief ASAP, try one of these:
The Basic Breath
Suggested by Ellis
Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand and your chest should rise very little. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft “whooshing” sound as you exhale. Repeat. Do this for several minutes until you start to feel better.
The Box Breath
Suggested by Ellis
Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, release for 4 counts, and hold at the bottom for 4 counts. Repeat 4 times. Notice if your shoulders are able to drop, notice how your thoughts and moods shift to a more relaxed state.
The 4-7-8 Technique
Suggested by Benton
Exhale and empty your lungs completely. Breathe in for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 7 seconds. Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat four times.
10 Deep Breaths
Suggested by Benton
Close your eyes. Take a slow, deep breath in. Feel the air coming into your lungs. Exhale, releasing your thoughts along with the breath. Repeat 10 times.
Kapalabhati (Breath of Fire)
Suggested by Webb, Most helpful in the morning
Sitting on the floor or in a chair, make your hand into a fist and place it on your lower belly. Take a breath in. Keeping your abs tense, release a short, explosive breath out, followed by a quick, passive breath in. Each exhale should be about one second while the inhale is as quick as possible. Repeat the explosive exhale/passive inhale at a fast pace for 30 seconds. Do 2 to 3 rounds. Over time, work your way up to 60-second rounds.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Suggested by Webb, Most helpful at night
Hold your right hand in a shaka sign in front of your face (that’s thumb and pinky extended, three middle fingers down against your palm). Exhale completely. Use your right thumb to close off your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril, then use your pinky finger to close the left nostril. Hold for two breaths. Release the right side (thumb) and exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril, then use your thumb to close it. Hold for two breaths. Release the left side (pinky). That’s one round. Repeat 6 times.