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7 Breathing Techniques to Manage Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal part of our life. 

Only when our anxiety becomes frequent and gives birth to excessive worry and crippling fear about everyday situations, it becomes a serious problem.

When you realize that anxiety is actually your mind anticipating the worst possible scenarios with any situation governed by a self-deprecating mindset with low self-esteem, one thing becomes very clear.

You need to bring your anxious self back to the present reality. 

And what is one practice that exclusively teaches you to focus on the present moment?

It’s our breath. It makes perfect sense. But first let’s understand how our breathing changes during anxiety.


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What Happens To Your Breath During Anxiety?

You start breathing in and out, through your mouth too quickly making your breathing shallow.

Your chest expands when you breathe in instead of your belly or abdomen.

You get an increased urge to sigh or breathe deeply, taking in more air than what you exhale, eventually making you hyperventilate.

All of these poor breathing habits can exaggerate your anxiety attack, especially hyperventilation which can contribute to symptoms like chest pain, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, numbing or tingling in your hands and feet, and sometimes even fainting.

Hyperventilation is generally referred to as rapid or over-breathing. 

It occurs when you breathe in too much oxygen(O2) and breathe out too much carbon dioxide (CO2).

But our bodies need CO2 as much as we need O2. CO2 helps release the O2 into our tissues and then it becomes of use to our bodies. So the more CO2 we exhale out, the less O2 gets absorbed by our bodies.

Slowing down our breath helps us to maintain a balanced level of CO2 in our bloodstream which helps our bodies to efficiently absorb and use the O2 we take in.

The Power Of Our Breath

Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D. explain that of all the automatic functions of the body, only the breath can be easily controlled voluntarily.

They write in their book, The Healing Power of the Breath:

By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body, a language the brain understands and to which it responds. Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior. (Source: psychcentral.com)

Breathing Techniques to Calm Down and Manage Your Anxiety

Now that you know how powerful the breath is, try any of these seven breathing techniques to relieve yourself of anxiety and relax your mind.

DISCLAIMER: If you have heart, lung, or other medical issues that may affect or be affected by breathing, you should consult a doctor before performing any breathing technique.

Lengthen Your Exhale

The simplest of breathing techniques you can practice is to lengthen your exhale. 

Studies have proved that prolonged exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) which initiates the rest-and-digest or feed-and-breed responses, making us feel calm and relaxed.

Whereas during rapid breathing, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dominates the PSNS, initiating our fight-or-flight response, eventually making you hyperventilate.

Follow these steps to lengthen your exhale during anxiety:

  • Take a comfortable position, standing, sitting, or lying down.
  • First, exhale thoroughly and try to push out all the air from your lungs.
  • Next, take a deep breath in through your nose. Try to reach for 4-6 seconds.
  • Next, try to prolong your exhale for as much time as is convenient for you. Try to reach for 6-10 seconds.
  • Continue following this breathing technique for 2-5 minutes.

Belly Breathing

Breathing through your abdomen or belly is the most natural way of relaxing your body using the breath. Belly breathing occurs naturally as you breathe through your diaphragm, an important muscle that sits below your lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, along with slowing down your breath to expend less energy.

Follow these steps to practice belly breathing during anxiety:

  • Take a comfortable position, preferably sitting upright.
  • Place one hand on your belly, and the other hand on your chest.
  • Take a deep breath through your nose into the diaphragm. Your hands should move as the belly expands with the in-breath. The chest should remain relatively still.
  • Breathe out through the mouth or the nose, without rushing it.
  • Continue the process for 10-20 minutes to relieve any anxiety and stress.

Rebreathing

This breathing method is specifically useful if you’re hyperventilating. You might know this technique as paper bag breathing, where you breathe in and out of a small paper bag. 

Exhaling into a paper bag traps the CO2 that you release and, you re-breathe the lost CO2 to maintain comfortable CO2 levels for the O2 to get absorbed in your body.

Alternatively, if you don’t have a paper bag, you can simply cup your hands to cover your nose and mouth and breathe slowly.

This method can be effective in managing hyperventilation and even reduce the symptoms of the anxiety attack.

Resistance Breathing

You have to create a resistance to the flow of your breath in this method.

You can create resistance to the breath flow by either pursing your lips, clenching your teeth to make a hissing sound, placing the tip of the tongue against the back of the front upper teeth to make a whooshing sound or just use a thin straw. 

The objective is to slow down your breathing process using the resistance and making you focus on your breath. This would help you control your breath and relax from the anxiety.

Follow these steps to practice resistance breathing during anxiety:

  • Take a comfortable position, preferably sitting down or standing up.
  • Create the resistance by either pursing your lips, clenching your teeth to make a hissing sound, placing the tip of the tongue against the back of the front upper teeth to make a whooshing sound, or just use a thin straw. 
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through the resistance, first into your belly and then your chest. If you find it difficult to breathe in through the resistance, simply breathe in through your nose which creates some resistance to the breath flow.
  • Breathe out through the resistance and don’t stop until you have emptied your lungs.
  • Continue this method for at least 5-10 minutes.

Equal/Square Breathing

Square breathing or equal breathing, as the name suggests makes you breathe in, out, and hold for equal amounts of time. This helps you to manage your anxiety immediately by asking you to focus on your breath and measure it. It also helps regulate the amount of O2 and CO2 in your body, reducing the chances of hyperventilation.

Follow these steps to practice square breathing during anxiety:

  • Take a comfortable position, preferably sitting or lying down.
  • Close your eyes and try to observe how you are breathing.
  • Then slowly breathe in through your nose, counting 1000-2000-3000-4000.
  • Next, hold the breath for the same four-second count.
  • Then, exhale for the same four-second count.
  • Hold for the four-second count, before repeating the square pattern.
  • Continue for 5-10 minutes.

Alternatively, you can use the below image as well to practice the method.

7 Breathing Techniques to Manage Anxiety

ImageSource: uofmhealth.org

The 7/11 (or 3/5) Breathing

The 7/11 method is a simple yet effective breathing method with the aim of lengthening the exhale over the inhale. As the name suggests, you breathe in for 7 seconds and exhale for 11 seconds. Alternately, you can start with 3 seconds for inhaling and 5 seconds for breathing out.

Follow these steps to practice the 7/11 (or 3/5) breathing method during anxiety:

  • Sit upright comfortably in a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
  • Close your eyes and place both hands on your belly, slightly overlapping each other.
  • Take a deep breath in for a count of 7 (or 3), counting 1000-2000-3000-4000-so on.
    You should breathe into your belly first, raising your hands on your stomach. You can then breathe the remaining inhale into your chest.
  • Hold the breath for a moment after you complete inhaling.
  • Slowly exhale for a count of 11 (or 5), counting 1000-2000-3000-4000-so on.
  • Continue this process for 10-20 minutes to relax your anxiety completely.

The Bumblebee Breathing

The Bumblebee breath or Bhramari Pranayama is an ancient breathing technique used for thousands of years in the yoga community to instill calmness and relaxation in an anxious or stressful mind. As the name suggests, you have to mimic the typical humming sound of a bee as you exhale while practicing the technique. 

It’s deemed to be very effective as an instant option to relax and de-stress.

Follow this video to practice the Bumblebee breathing method during anxiety:

Your breath can be a very powerful tool to become mindful. Next time you get anxious, challenge yourself to gain control back from anxiety by using one of these breathing techniques.


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7 Breathing Techniques to Manage Anxiety

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