Proven Breathing Techniques for Anxiety

By The Editors Updated on — Medically Reviewed and Certified by Dr. Robert Kiltz

Table of Contents

Anxiety is an emotion that affects everyone at one time or another. Thankfully, there are a number of proven breathing techniques for anxiety that work. 

Knowing at least one of the breathing techniques that we outline below will turn your body into a secret weapon against anxiety. This is important because in our busy, stressful lives, it can feel like anxiety is always lurking around the corner.

Many factors can cause anxiety. Common triggers for anxiety include:

  • Health
  • Finances
  • Work
  • School
  • Relationships

Did you know that 31.1% of adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives?[1]

This article will first discuss what anxiety is and how it can impact your physical and mental health. We’ll then share some proven techniques for reducing anxiety with deep breathing. 

How Breathing Techniques Reduce Anxiety

Anxiety occurs because of a “fight or flight” response to a certain trigger. This sends a signal to your brain to produce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. To reduce anxiety, you need to put the breaks on this “fight or flight” response, and eventually turn it off. 

Remarkably, deep breathing techniques can quickly relieve the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety by sending calming signals to your brain. These signals turn off your “fight or flight” response and activate your “rest and digest” response.

Deep breathing reduces anxiety by:

  • Slowing your heart rate
  • Lowering your blood pressure
  • Slowing your breathing
  • Calming your mind

By practicing deep breathing exercises for a few minutes each day, you can notice a visible difference in your overall health and well-being. And in times of intense anxiety, deep breathing can bring you back to your baseline.

In addition to calming anxiety, numerous studies have shown deep breathing to improve cognitive performance while reducing stress hormones in both normal and acutely stressful situations. [1][2]

For athletes deep breathing has been shown to reduce oxidative-stress, keeping your body healthy for longer while reducing inflammation and improving muscle recovery [3]

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the body’s normal response to stress. It’s part of the “fight-or-flight” response that happens when you face a real or perceived physical or emotional threat . When you feel anxious, you may experience physical changes including:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Perspiration
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Flushed face

In some cases, anxiety can be useful because it makes you alert and aware in the face of danger. But anxiety can also become excessive and negatively impact your mental health. Emotional symptoms of anxiety are: 

  • Overwhelm
  • Unease
  • Nervousness
  • Distress
  • Dread
  • Worry

Prolonged anxiety can wear on both your physical and mental health and result in an increased risk of health problems such as:

  • Depression 
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration issues

What Is Deep Breathing?

Deep breathing promotes optimal oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. You may hear deep breathing called by the following names:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Abdominal breathing
  • Belly breathing
  • Paced respiration

What all these techniques have in common is that you are intentionally activating your breathing muscle, the diaphragm. When you breathe in, your diaphragm presses against your abdominal organs to allow your lungs more room to expand with air. When you breathe out, your diaphragm presses against your lungs and you expel carbon dioxide.

For many of you who are just starting out with deep breathing it can feel unnatural. Many of us are used to clenching our stomach muscles as a stress response to our busy lives, or to make our stomachs appear flatter than they are. 

Holding your stomach in actually inhibits your natural breathing pattern by limiting the range of motion of your diaphragm. If your diaphragm doesn’t contract and relax fully, the blood vessels at the base of your lungs do not receive oxygen.

Benefits of Deep Breathing for Anxiety

There are numerous benefits of deep breathing. And you can experience many of them almost instantly.

When you breathe in and out, your blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Rapid deep breathing, or hyperventilation , due to anxiety can lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Taking slow, deep breaths restores the balance of carbon dioxide that your body needs.

Similarly, anxiety can also cause rapid, shallow breathing . This prevents your lungs from receiving their full share of oxygen. Deep breathing can remedy this situation by promoting optimal oxygenation to all of your body’s tissues.

Other benefits of deep breathing include:

  • Pain relief
  • Stronger immune system
  • Better circulation
  • Improved digestion
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decreased stress
  • Calmer mind
  • Increased energy
  • Better posture
  • Reduced intra-abdominal pressure 
  • Improved lung capacity

How to Determine Your Breathing Pattern

Most people aren’t conscious of the way they breathe. Breathing is an autonomic function that often involves little thought or effort. Generally, there are two types of breathing patterns :

  • Deep breathing
  • Chest breathing

You can determine your breathing pattern by placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. As you breathe in, notice if the hand on your chest or belly raises.

Chest breathing causes the hand on your chest to raise during inhale and lower during exhale. And deep breathing causes the hand on your belly to raise during inhale and lower during exhale. 

If you breathe through your chest, you’re not fully activating your diaphragm. Fortunately, you can easily learn how to breathe more optimally with deep breathing exercises. 

Deep Breathing Techniques for Anxiety

Deep breathing exercises can help you improve your breathing pattern and harness the benefits of deep breathing.

There are many breathing techniques to choose from, but they all hold the same basic principles. When breathing, you should:

  • Breathe deeply with your diaphragm (feel your belly rise)
  • Breathe smoothly and overcome rough, stuck, or jagged breaths
  • Inhale through your nostrils 
  • Exhale longer than you inhale (at least 2x as long if possible)

If you begin to feel short of breath, dizzy, or lightheaded at any point during these exercises, just take a break and rest. These symptoms can occur during over-breathing or chest breathing and it can take some time to find your diaphragmatic rhythm, especially when you’re in a state of acute stress or panic. 

Below, we’ll discuss different deep breathing techniques that you can use to reduce anxiety. We’ll provide a step-by-step guide to help you learn these techniques. 

Diaphragmatic Breathing for Anxiety

Diaphragmatic breathing is a continuous exercise. You don’t need to hold your breath between inhales and exhales.

You can complete diaphragmatic breathing by following the steps below:

  1. Lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent. Or sit comfortably in a chair.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly.
  3. Breathe in deeply through your nose. The hand on your chest should remain relatively still while your other hand rises with your belly.
  4. Exhale through pursed lips slowly. The hand on your belly should lower.
  5. Repeat this cycle for a few minutes.

Pursed Lip Breathing for Anxiety

Pursed lip breathing can relieve shortness of breath by slowing your breathing and getting more oxygen in your lungs. This type of breathing is beneficial for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because it removes trapped air in the lungs. 

You can practice pursed lip breathing by using the following steps:

  1. Sit in a chair and relax your muscles.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose while keeping your mouth closed.
  3. Breathe out through pursed lips like you are blowing out candles.
  4. Try to breathe out 2X as long as each inhalation. 
  5. Repeat this cycle. Make sure to breathe out longer than you breathe in.

Mindful Breathing for Anxiety

Mindful breathing calms your mind by focusing your awareness solely on your breath. This technique is great for relieving restless or anxious thoughts. Think of it like placing big speed bumps along those circular roads of self-doubt, judgment, and worry. 

The steps for mindful breathing are fairly simple and are as follows:

  1. Take an exaggerated, deep breath in through your nose.
  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
  3. Bring your awareness to the rise and fall of your chest. When your mind wanders- gently return your focus back to your breath.
  4. Repeat this cycle for 3 minutes. 
  5. Work up to 15 minutes of this simple practice. Then try 20. 

Getting to 15 minutes and more of mindful breathing is helpful because it takes about 15 minutes for your mind to fully focus on any subject–in this case your breath. When fully focused the sense of relief and calm can dramatically deepen. 

4-7-8 Breathing

4-7-8 breathing is another way to practice deep breathing. This technique breaks down your breathing into 4, 7, and 8-second increments.

This breathing technique is different than the other that we went over because it has you hold your breath between inhale and exhale.

To sink into 4-7-8 breathing follow these simple steps:

  1. Sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes.
  2. Breathe in deeply through your nostrils, counting to 4.
  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds.
  5. Repeat this cycle.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (Moon Breath)

Alternate nostril breathing or moon breath is a breathing technique that involves breathing in and out through your nostrils only. This is a more complex deep breathing exercise that requires some extra concentration.

You can practice alternate nostril breathing by following the steps below:

  1. Sit upright with good posture and relax your muscles.
  2. Place your left hand on your left knee. You can keep your palm facing upwards while touching your index finger to your thumb.
  3. Place the pads of your index and middle fingers in between your eyebrows. Then place your ring and little fingers on your left nostril. Lastly, place your thumb on your right nostril.
  4. Breathe out through your left nostril by lifting your ring and little fingers.
  5. Breathe in through your left nostril. Gently press your ring and little fingers on your left nostril to close it.
  6. Breathe out through your right nostril by lifting your thumb.
  7. Breathe in through your right nostril. Gently close your right nostril by pressing your thumb against it.
  8. Repeat steps 4-7 for a couple of minutes.

When completing this exercise, remember to inhale through the same nostril that you exhaled through. 

Bumblebee Breath (Humming)

Humming while breathing out stimulates the production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide helps build and repair your nervous system and increases the delivery of oxygen throughout your body. Humming or bumblebee breath is a calming breathing technique that promotes healing from the inside out.

The following steps outline how to complete humming or bumblebee breath:

  1. Sit upright in a chair with good posture.
  2. Rest your hands on the sides of your stomach.
  3. Close your lips and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
  4. Breathe in deeply through your nose.
  5. Feel your breath expand your stomach under your hands.
  6. Exhale through your nose while humming “hmmm” with closed lips.
  7. Feel your hands lower with your stomach.
  8. Repeat this cycle for one minute.

Create a Daily Routine to Manage Your Anxiety

Deep breathing can help you manage your anxiety by reducing your physical and mental responses to daily stressors. By practicing deep breathing techniques every day, you can dramatically reprogram your brain to respond better to anxiety. 

A daily routine of deep breathing can improve your health and wellbeing. And all it takes is a little bit of time and a dedication to your own health and wellness. Breathing is a gift you can give to your body, mind, and spirit at any time and anywhere. You deserve it! 

We suggest trying out at least a few of the techniques we’ve gone over and picking the one that works best for you. 

Alternating between breathing techniques can challenge your mind and prevent boredom while offering your body and mind a wider range of benefits. 

The following tips can help you master deep breathing techniques:

  • Choose a quiet and calming place to practice your breathing 
  • Notice any tension in your body, let your mind go to those points, ask each point to relax. 
  • Bring your awareness to the sensation of your breath in your body wherever you feel it at the moment–nose, chest, belly, or whole body. 
  • Take a moment to simply notice the natural flow of your breath. Is it short, deep, quick? Just notice and accept, without trying to change it. 
  • Then begin your technique.
  • Breath deeply from 3-20 minutes at a time.
  • At the end of the practice, settle back into your natural breathing. Check in to see how it has changed since when you began the practice.
  • Practice your breathing at the same time every day to establish a routine

Deep Breathing Is Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

Occasional anxiety is a perfectly normal response to stress. But anxiety that becomes more persistent can lead to negative effects on your health, work, and relationships. Deep breathing is a natural treatment for anxiety that everyone can implement in their daily lives.

Deep breathing can move your body from a “fight or flight” response to a “rest and digest” response. Over time, breathing techniques can reduce the frequency and severity of your anxiety.

Establishing a daily routine for deep breathing can provide long-term benefits.[4] 

But don’t be afraid to seek additional treatments for anxiety if needed. Besides deep breathing, the following treatments can help you kick anxiety:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Meditation 
  • Medication

The benefits of deep breathing are most effective in combination with healthy lifestyle choices such as:

  • Eating a keto-friendly diet
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Sleeping 7 hours or more every night

If you want to learn more about achieving optimal health and self-care through the food you eat, you can check out our guide to a keto diet.

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©2020 Doctor ROBERT KILTZ. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED