Breathing is a necessity of life that usually occurs without much thought. When you breathe in air, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a waste product that’s carried back through your body and exhaled.
Improper breathing can upset the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange and contribute to anxiety, fatigue, and other physical and emotional disturbances.
Chest versus Abdominal Breathing
Most people aren’t really conscious of the way they’re breathing, but generally, there are two types of breathing patterns:
- Diaphragmatic (abdominal): This type of breathing is a type of deep, even breathing that engages your diaphragm, allowing your lungs to expand and creating negative pressure that drives air in through the nose and mouth, filling your lungs with air. This is the way newborn babies naturally breathe. You’re also probably using this pattern of breathing when you’re in a relaxed stage of sleep.
- Thoracic (chest) breathing: This type of breathing comes from the chest and involves short, rapid breaths. When you’re anxious, you might not even be aware that you’re breathing this way.
The easiest way to determine your breathing pattern is to put one hand on your upper abdomen near the waist and the other in the middle of your chest. As you breathe, notice which hand raises the most.
If you’re breathing properly, your abdomen should expand and contract with each breath (and the hand on it should raise the most).
It’s especially important to be aware of these differences during stressful and anxious times when you’re more likely to breathe from your chest.
The next time you’re feeling anxious, there are a variety of deep breathing exercises to try.
Alternate-nostril breathing (nadi sodhana) involves blocking off one nostril at a time as you breathe through the other, alternating between nostrils in a regular pattern.4 It’s best to practice this type of breathing in a seated position in order to maintain your posture.
- Position your right hand by bending your pointer and middle fingers into your palm, leaving your thumb, ring finger, and pinky extended. This is known as Vishnu mudra in yoga.
- Close your eyes or softly gaze downward.
- Inhale and exhale to begin.
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb.
- Inhale through your left nostril.
- Close off your left nostril with your ring finger.
- Open and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through your right nostril.
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb.
- Open and exhale through your left nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril.
Do your best to work up to 10 rounds of this breathing pattern. If you begin to feel lightheaded, take a break. Release both nostrils and breathe normally.
According to The American Institute of Stress, 20 to 30 minutes of belly breathing each day will reduce anxiety and stress. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. For example, try sitting in a chair, sitting cross-legged, or lying on your back with a small pillow under your head and under your knees.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly, below the ribcage.
- Allow your belly to relax, without forcing it inward by squeezing or clenching your muscles.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. The air should move into your nose and downward so that you feel your stomach rise with your other hand and fall inward (toward your spine).
- Exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips. Take note of the hand on your chest, which should remain relatively still.
Although the sequence frequency will vary according to your health, most people begin by doing the exercise three times and working up to five to 10 minutes, one to four times a day.
Also known as four-square breathing, is very simple to learn and practice. In fact, if you’ve ever noticed yourself inhaling and exhaling to the rhythm of a song, you’re already familiar with this type of paced breathing. It goes like this:
- Exhale to a count of four.
- Hold your lungs empty for a four count.
- Inhale to a count of four.
- Hold air in your lungs for a count of four.
- Exhale and begin the pattern anew.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise, also called the relaxing breath, acts as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. At first, it’s best to perform the exercise seated with your back straight. Once you become more familiar with the breathing exercise, however, you can perform it while lying in bed:
- Place and keep the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth for the duration of the exercise.
- Completely exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
Lion’s breath, or simhasana in Sanskrit, during which you stick out your tongue and roar like a lion, is another helpful deep breathing practice. It can help relax the muscles in your face and jaw, alleviate stress, and improve cardiovascular functions
The exercise is best performed in a comfortable, seated position, leaning forward slightly with your hands on your knees or the floor.
- Spread your fingers as wide as possible.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and stretch it down toward your chin.
- Exhale forcefully, carrying the breath across the root of your tongue.
- While exhaling, make a “ha” sound that comes from deep within your abdomen.
- Breathe normally for a few moments.
- Repeat lion’s breath up to seven times.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on your breathing and bringing your attention to the present without allowing your mind to drift off to the past or future.
- Choose a calming focus, including a sound (“om”), positive word (“peace”), or phrase (“breathe in calm, breath out tension”) to repeat silently as you inhale or exhale.
- Let go and relax. When you notice your mind has drifted, take a deep breath and gently return your attention to the present.
Pursed-lip breathing is a simple breathing technique that will help make deep breaths slower and more intentional. This technique has been found to benefit people who have anxiety associated with lung conditions like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Sit in a comfortable position, with your neck and shoulders relaxed.
- Keeping your mouth closed, inhale slowly through your nostrils for two seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth for four seconds, puckering your mouth as if giving a kiss.
- Keep your breath slow and steady while breathing out.
To get the correct breathing pattern, experts recommend practicing pursed-lip breathing four to five times a day
Resonance breathing, can help you get into a relaxed state and reduce anxiety
- Lie down and close your eyes.
- Gently breathe in through your nose, mouth closed, for a count of six seconds. Don’t fill your lungs too full of air.
- Exhale for six seconds, allowing your breath to leave your body slowly and gently without forcing it.
- Continue for up to 10 minutes.
- Take a few additional minutes to be still and focus on how your body feels.
Breathing exercises for stress
This calming breathing technique for stress, anxiety and panic takes just a few minutes and can be done anywhere.
You will get the most benefit if you do it regularly, as part of your daily routine.
You can do it standing up, sitting in a chair that supports your back, or lying on a bed or yoga mat on the floor.
Make yourself as comfortable as you can. If you can, loosen any clothes that restrict your breathing.
If you’re lying down, place your arms a little bit away from your sides, with the palms up. Let your legs be straight, or bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor.
If you’re sitting, place your arms on the chair arms.
If you’re sitting or standing, place both feet flat on the ground. Whatever position you’re in, place your feet roughly hip-width apart.
- Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.
- Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.
- Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful.
- Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.
You can perform this exercise as often as needed. It can be done standing up, sitting down, or lying down. If you find this exercise difficult or believe it’s making you anxious or panicky, stop for now. Try it again in a day or so and build up the time gradually.
- 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 this breathing exercise. Do it for several minutes until you start to feel better.
To make deep breathing work for you, it’s essential to listen to your body and be mindful of how anxiety is impacting your everyday life. If after practicing deep breathing you still feel severe anxiety, consider consulting a mental health professional or medical doctor for assessment and recommendations for treatment. If you have a lung condition like COPD or asthma, or you’re experiencing pain or difficulty breathing, speak with your healthcare provider before trying any type of breathing exercise.