How Do Breathing Exercises Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety?

It is no question that suffering from anxiety causes a person to feel many different things, like frustration, fear, nervousness, and sometimes even physical pain. Anxiety is a difficult thing to live with and sometimes a person can begin to feel anxious even at times that there is nothing to feel anxious about. Anxiety may seem to not make much sense at times, but it is in fact a systematic process. Anxiety will always have a trigger, whether conscious or unconscious, and will always be fueled by behaviors like:

  • Racing negative thoughts
  • Fixating on negative things or events
  • Fear for the future
  • Assumptions about what others may be thinking
  • Fear of failure
  • General nervousness about one’s environment
  • Paranoia, and more

Being aware of this process and how it affects a person is important when learning how to break the cycle and prevent anxiety from controlling his or her life. A major way to maintain control over anxiety and prevent the behaviors like worrying, fixating on the negative, and having negative thoughts is to remain in the present moment by making sure the body is supplied with what it needs to stay in a calm state.

A person’s breathing pattern is disrupted when he or she is feeling anxious. When a person begins to feel anxious, he or she will lose awareness of the breathing pattern, which is negatively impacted by the stress response triggered by anxiety. When a person gets anxious, his or her thoughts begin to race. The racing negative thoughts cause the nervous system to engage. A natural reaction of the nervous system being triggered is breathing becoming labored. This labored breathing effectively causes the person to get more nervous as the lack of oxygen to the body strengthens the response of the nervous system. It is a destructive cycle, but it can be prevented if the person experiencing anxiety makes sure that his or her breathing remains consistent and provides sufficient oxygen to the body’s muscles and organs. This will reduce the overall prevalence of anxiety.

Researchers and professionals in the mental health field have done extensive research on the effectiveness of breath work on relieving symptoms of anxiety. Results have found that using breath work through meditative work and in-the-moment stress reduction exercises decreases overall prevalence of anxiety in an affected person. If you suffer from anxiety, consider adopting some of the following breathing exercises into your daily routine and coping process. With commitment and patience, you will soon begin to feel relief from your anxiety symptoms.

Meditation Practices That Teach Breath Work Techniques

Yoga

Yoga is a popular meditative practice that was developed over 5,000 years ago in ancient India. When people think of yoga, they often think of an exercise that involves holding awkward and uncomfortable poses for extended periods of time to become more flexible. Despite this popular assumption, yoga is much more than just exercises to increase flexibility. It is a meditative practice that uses breath work, transitioning exercises through different poses, and focus to improve the student’s overall calm, concentration, and peace in the present moment.

Yoga incorporates many different components like meditation, deep breathing exercises, self-awareness and concentration to help build overall awareness and acceptance to the present moment. Yoga is a beneficial practice for those who suffer from anxiety because it teaches students how to be patient and focus on the body in order to reach a meditative state through breathing exercises. Yoga teaches several different ways to meditate while incorporating breathing to increase calm and reduce racing thoughts and anxieties. Two common meditative breathing exercises used in yoga are the Sama Vritti (Balanced Breathing) Pranayama and Nadi Shodhana (Nostril Breaths).

Sama Vritti Pranayama (Balanced Breathing)

Sama Vritti is a breathing exercise taught in yoga for meditative purposes. Sama Vritti breathing helps with calming and focusing the mind to reduce anxiety in a short amount of time. This practice can be helpful not only for general anxiety and stress, but also can be instrumental in reducing anxiety attacks and panic attacks. To perform Sama Vritti Pranayama:

  1. Find a space to comfortably sit in a cross-legged position, or in a chair with your spine straight and chin up.
  2. Close your eyes and focus your awareness on your body position and your breath. Count 5 breaths focusing on the rise and fall of each breath before continuing to the next step.
  3. Gradually fill your lungs with air on a 5-count inhale. Focus on the feeling of your lungs filling to the brim on the fifth count.
  4. Exhale the air for five counts. On the fifth count, focus on the feeling of your lungs being empty.

Continue the exercise for 5-10 cycles. When performing this exercise, try to focus solely on the filling and emptying of your lungs.

Nadi Shodhana (Nostril Breaths)

Nadi Shodhana is a breathing exercise that is used to calm the mind and slow down the thought process. It is helpful for people who suffer from anxiety because it helps reduce racing thoughts and settles emotions by bringing the mind’s focus to the body’s center, rather than the anxieties caused by the unsettled mind. To perform Nadi Shodhana:

  1. Sit comfortably with your spine straight and shoulders rolled back to open the chest. Place your right hand on your knee and your left hand in front of your face, placing your pointer and middle finger on the space between your eyebrows.
  2. Take a deep inhale and exhale through the nose.
  3. Cover your left nostril with your thumb. Take a deep inhale through the right nostril on an eight second count.
  4. Use your ring finger to cover your open nostril to hold the breath for five seconds.
  5. Release your thumb off of the left nostril and slowly exhale the air from the lungs.
  6. Keep your left nostril uncovered while inhaling through the nose on an eight second count. Cover your left nostril with your thumb to hold the breath for five seconds.
  7. Release your right nostril to release the breath.

Repeat for 5-7 cycles before switching hands for balance.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is another meditative exercise that helps a patient manage symptoms of anxiety. Tai Chi is considered an ancient Chinese martial art, even though it does not require defense training or physical combat. Tai Chi incorporates the body and mind to build balance, control, flexibility, and mindfulness through fluid movements and controlled breathing. The goal of Tai Chi is to find balance and inner peace through awareness of the movements of the body. It helps to relieve anxiety by having the brain focus on the body’s movements and how it flows the rise and fall of each breath. This creates a sense of connectedness with the body in the present moment, which reduces racing thoughts, anticipatory anxiety, and negative emotions triggered by the thoughts and anxiety.

Qigong

Qigong is another ancient Chinese meditative practice that incorporates the concepts of Yin (being) and Yang (doing) into exercises that stimulate relaxation, flexibility, and breathing. The goal of Qigong is to find inner peace and balance. Qigong is used to help treat not only mental illness like depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, but has also been found to be beneficial for those who suffer from chronic and terminal illness. Qigong has also been found to be particularly helpful when it comes to existential anxiety and uncertainty about the future. The following are useful breathing exercises that derive from the Qigong practice:

Buddhist Breathing

Buddhist breathing is used to increase focus on your body and present moment. To perform a Buddist breath:

  1. Find a comfortable seated position with your back straight and your shoulders rolled back.
  2. On your inhale through the nose, fill your chest and belly with air, from top to bottom, on a 10 second count.
  3. On your exhale through the mouth, engage your abdominal muscles to push out the air, beginning at the bottom of the lungs and working up, pushing the air toward the mouth, on a 15 second count.

Repeat 10-15 times, or until you feel you are in a calm, rested state.

When performing a Buddhist breath, envision a flow of calm energy entering and exiting the body.

Taoist Breathing

The process of Taoist breathing is essentially the opposite of Buddhist breathing. Taoist breathing increases focus and control of breathing, the mind, and the body. To perform a Taoist breath:

  1. Find a comfortable seated position with your back straight and your shoulders rolled back.
  2. On your 10-second count inhale through the nose, contract your abdominal muscles as you fill your lungs with air.
  3. On your 15-second exhale through the nose, Release your abdominal muscles outward to a resting position.

Repeat 10-15 times, or until you feel you are in a calm, rested state.

How To Use Breathing Exercises To Reduce In-The-Moment Anxiety

While practicing breathing exercises does help a great deal in reducing overall anxiety and helping the patient find peace of mind, there are always those moments of anxiety during the day that are unexpected, unpredictable, and uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are breathing exercises that you can learn and use in the moment, without needing to reach a meditative state.  Each of the breathing exercises outlined below are effective exercises for reducing anxiety in the moment that can be performed anywhere.

10 Second Breaths

Chest breaths are very easy to perform and help a great deal with in-the-moment situations that cause anxiety. To perform a 10 second breath:

  1. Take a 10-second long, deep inhale through the nose. Try to inhale so you have filled the lungs as much as possible by the time you reach 10.
  2. Hold the breath for 3 to 5 seconds- for as long as you feel comfortable.
  3. Release the breath with a 10-second exhale through the mouth. Try to exhale all of the air out of the lungs by the time you reach 10.

Repeat 3-5 times. By this point you should feel a sense of calm and a reduction in your overall symptoms of anxiety.

4-7-8 Breaths

4-7-8 breaths are helpful when feeling overwhelmed or when confronted by an unexpected stressor. To perform a 4-7-8 breath:

  1. Take a deep 4-second inhale through the nose.
  2. Hold the breath for 7 seconds.
  3. Release the breath through the mouth on an 8 second count.

Repeat 5 times while staying mindful of your body position and environment.

Belly Breaths

Belly breaths are helpful with managing day-to-day stress. It is ideal to practice this exercise in a peaceful space where you feel safe and secure. If this is not possible, you may still perform belly breaths, but try to focus on the breaths, not the stimulation around you. Follow the instructions to complete a belly breath:

  1. Place your dominant hand on your belly, and your other hand on your chest.
  2. Inhale through the nose, filling the belly with as much air as you can without having the hand on your chest rise.
  3. Hold the breath for 5 seconds.
  4. Gradually exhale through the mouth.

Repeat breath 3 to 5 times before resuming to your daily activities.

Chest Breaths

Chest breaths are essentially the opposite of belly breaths, but are also effective in helping manage day-to-day stress. To complete a chest breath:

  1. Place your dominant hand on your chest, and your other hand on your belly.
  2. Inhale through the nose, filling the lungs to make the chest rise with as much air as you can without having the hand on your belly rise.
  3. Hold the breath for 5 seconds.
  4. Gradually exhale through the mouth.

After performing this exercise 3-5 times, you should feel a sense of calm and focus on the present moment.