9 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

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Woman with hands on chest doing breathing exercise at home

Woman with hands on chest doing breathing exercise at home

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Anxiety disorders impact as many as 30% of adults at some point in their lives. Fortunately, anxiety can sometimes be managed with a number of different coping mechanisms, including breathing exercises.

In fact, using breathing exercises along with counseling and other treatment options can effectively reduce anxiety, particularly in those with generalized anxiety disorder. Some studies have found that breathing exercises can improve your mood and anxiety as well as reduce your heart rate and respiratory rate. Some studies even indicate the breathwork is more effective at reducing anxiety than mindfulness.

If you are experiencing anxiety or even panic attacks, you may find breathing exercises useful in managing your symptoms. Here are breathing exercises you can try to reduce stress and calm your anxiety.

Box Breathing

Box breathing, which is sometimes referred to as tactical breathing, was first used by members of the U.S. military for stress regulation and performance improvement. This breathing exercise is called box breathing because it has four primary components and is intended to help people visualize a box with four equal sides as they perform the exercise. 

Box breathing can be implemented in a variety of different circumstances. It also does not require a calm environment to be effective, which is why it is often utilized by the military. In other words, you can implement this breathing technique before, during, or after stressful or anxiety-provoking experiences. Here is how to utilize the box breathing technique:

  • Step one: breathe in through your nose while counting to four.
  • Step two: hold your breath while counting to four. 
  • Step three: breath out while counting to four.
  • Step four: hold your breath while counting to four.
  • Step five: repeat.

It is important to note that you can adjust the length of the count depending on your needs and preferences. For instance, some people might choose to count to two while others might want to count to five.

Cyclic Sighing

Cyclic sighing is a controlled breathing exercise that emphasizes long exhalations and can reduce symptoms of anxiety, improve mood, and decrease breathing rate in as little as five minutes. In fact, researchers found that cyclic sighing was not only more effective than mindfulness, but it also seemed to have a greater impact on anxiety reduction than box breathing.

Long exhales, or sighing, activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which ultimately slows down your heart rate and has an overall calming effect. Because this type of breathwork is particularly effective, researchers recommend that you engage in daily cyclic sighing as a way to manage stress. Here is how to do cyclic sighing:

  • Step one: inhale slowly through your nose until your lungs are halfway full.
  • Step two: pause, then attempt to fill your lungs more completely with another breath.
  • Step three: exhale all of the air out through your mouth slowly, making your exhale longer than your two inhalations.
  • Step four: repeat for at least five minutes.

As you are engaging in cyclic sighing, the second breath in will be shorter than the first inhalation. You should experience some relief almost immediately using this technique, the researchers noted.

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Deep Breathing

Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, has been described by scientists as an effective mind-body approach for dealing with stress and psychosomatic conditions like anxiety and panic disorders. When practicing deep breathing, you contract your diaphragm, expand your belly, and deepen your inhalation and exhalation. Doing so, results in reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress.

Likewise, the American Institute of Stress indicates that 20 to 30 minutes of deep breathing can reduce stress and anxiety. That said, you may want to start out with just a few deep breaths and work your way up to several times a day. Here is how to practice deep breathing:

  • Step one: find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, close your eyes, and take a normal breath.
  • Step two: breathe in slowly through your nose, letting your chest and lower belly rise as your lungs fill with air. Your abdomen should expand fully.
  • Step three: breathe out slowly in a controlled way either through your nose or your mouth, whichever is most comfortable for you.
  • Step four: repeat this process until you feel calm and relaxed. Some people even practice this technique several times a day.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a type of yoga breathing. This approach has been shown to be improve attention and decrease blood pressure, both of which may be useful in reducing symptoms of anxiety.

To do alternate nostril breathing, you breathe through your left and right nostrils alternately. You will use your thumb and the fingers on your right hand to close one nostril at a time. Here is how you do alternate nostril breathing:

  • Step one: take in a breath and close off your right nostril with your thumb.
  • Step two: exhale through your left nostril and then inhale through the left nostril.
  • Step three: close off the right nostril with your ring finger and pinky.
  • Step four: exhale through your left nostril and inhale through your left nostril.
  • Step five: repeat.

Humming Breathing

Humming breathing, sometimes called Bhramari pranayama or bumblebee breath, is a slow paced breathing technique that is accompanied with a humming bee sound when you are exhaling. This type of breathing influences multiple systems in your body. In fact, it can have a positive impact on your respiratory system, autonomic nervous system, stress, and anxiety level.

This breathing exercise also can relieve stress, agitation, and anger as well as calm your mind and body before you go to sleep. Here is how to implement humming breathing:

  • Step one: get into a comfortable seated position like sitting cross-legged on the floor.
  • Step two: breathe in and out through your nose, relaxing your face and jaw.
  • Step three: place your pointer fingers on the cartilage of your ears, blocking out any noise or sounds.
  • Step four: take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale through your nose, making a humming or buzzing sound on the exhale. (Keep your ears blocked.)
  • Step five: continue this process for at least 6 cycles of breath.

4-7-8 Breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise, which was developed by Andrew Weil, MD, can help quickly calm your nervous system and can be done either sitting or lying down. Just as the name suggests, you breathe in for four seconds, hold that breath for a count of seven, and then exhale for eight seconds while making a whooshing sound by placing the tongue behind the front teeth.

During this exercise, your exhalation will take twice as long as your inhalation. When you first try this breathing exercise, the effects will be subtle, but it will become more powerful the more you practice. Most experts recommend doing it at least twice a day. Here's how to utilize the 4-7-8 breathing technique:

  • Step one: inhale quietly through your nose while mentally counting to four.
  • Step two: hold your breath while mentally counting to seven.
  • Step three: exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound while mentally counting to eight. This represents one cycle.
  • Step four: inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four cycles.

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Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing helps you slow your breathing through the inhalation and exhalation of more air. Through pursed-lip breathing, you can relieve shortness of breath, decrease the work of breathing, and improve gas exchange. You also may experience increased relaxation as well as be able to control your breathing with this approach.

This breathing exercise also may be able to reduce the sensation of dyspnea, or the feeling that you cannot catch your breath, which is common in people with anxiety. Pursed lip breathing is particularly useful if you have both anxiety and a lung conditions like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Here is how to do pursed lip breathing:

  • Step one: sit in a comfortable position with your body relaxed.
  • Step two: inhale through your nose for two seconds.
  • Step three: exhale through your mouth for four seconds, pursing your lips like you are kissing someone.
  • Step four: practice this type of breathing exercise several times per day, especially if you have a lung condition.

Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing involves breathing at a slow rate—typically 4.5 to 7 breaths per minute. This breathing exercise lowers stress, reduces blood pressure, and improves mood. Many times healthcare providers will use resonance breathing biofeedback to teach people to recognize their involuntary heart rate variability and to control patterns of this physiological response through their breathing. Here is how you can practice resonance breathing:

  • Step one: breathe in through your nose for a count of six seconds. This will be slower than normal for you because most people take 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
  • Step two: exhale for six seconds, allowing your breath to leave your body slowly without forcing it out of your lungs.
  • Step three: repeat.

Lion's Breath

Lion’s breath is a type of breathing technique where you mimic a lion’s roar. Unlike other breathing exercises that tend to be quiet and gentle, lion’s breath is a little more forceful. When you perform this breathing exercise, you will stick out your tongue and let out an audible exhale.

This breathing exercise is a form of breathing found in yoga. While there are limited studies on lion’s breath specifically, a number of studies have shown that the different breathing techniques used in yoga can be helpful for reducing everything from anxiety to sleep apnea. Here is how to do the lion’s breath breathing exercise:

  • Step one: kneel down and lean back so that your hips are resting on heels.
  • Step two: keep your head tilted back and slightly lean forward while taking a large, slow breath through your nose.
  • Step three: hold your breath for few seconds, then open your mouth and stick out your tongue (it should be hanging down).
  • Step four: exhale forcefully while making a loud AHHH, which should sound like a roaring noise.
  • Step five: repeat a few times.

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A Quick Review

Anxiety disorders are a common issue affecting millions of Americans each year. Fortunately, there are a number of effective ways to manage symptoms of anxiety and reduce stress. One of the most effective ways to cope with anxiety is to engage in breathing exercises such as deep breathing, box breathing, humming breathing, and more.

Not only will these breathing techniques help you manage your stress and anxiety, but they also can reduce your respiratory rate and heart rate. While engaging in breathing exercises are generally risk free, if your anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life, it is important to speak with a healthcare provider about your symptoms. They can offer additional coping strategies as well as develop a treatment plan.