9 Breathing Exercises That Help You Cope With Anxiety

Take a few deep breaths and feel the difference (Image: Getty)

Are you feeling stressed, worried or overwhelmed today? You’re not alone.

Many people struggle with anxiety on a daily basis, and while there are several physical signs of anxiety, one of the most distressing can be shortness of breath or changes in the regularity of breathing.

While stress and anxiety can make it harder to breathe, your breathing can be the key to helping you feel better and keeping you in the moment.

Clare Gridley, psychotherapist at independent mental health care provider Priory Group, revealed nine science-backed breathing exercises that can help you develop a healthier way of breathing, providing a host of benefits and improving your overall well-being.

Speaking on behalf of the free global mental health app My Possible Self, Clare explains: “It can be daunting for many to know where to start when it comes to breathing exercises, but it’s not necessary and the benefits can be profound.”

“When you feel signs of anxiety building up inside you, there are personalized techniques you can adopt that will help bring your breathing back to normal.”

Here are nine simple breathing techniques that you can try at work or at home to help keep anxiety symptoms under control:

Simple breathing techniques for anxiety.

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

“Alternate nostril breathing, also known as nadi shodhana, is a simple breathing technique often used to calm any anxiety before a yoga or meditation session,” says Claire.

‘To practice alternate nostril breathing, assume a sitting position with good posture that opens the chest.

‘Next, take the index and middle fingers of your right hand and place them side by side between your eyebrows (you can do this with your left hand if that feels more comfortable).’

You are now ready to practice alternate nostril breathing:

  1. Use your thumb to close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril only.
  2. Pinch your nose closed by bringing your ring finger close to your left nostril. Hold your breath temporarily.
  3. Open your right nostril by removing your thumb and exhale.
  4. Hold for a moment before inhaling again through the right nostril.
  5. Pinch your nose closed again and hold your breath for a moment.
  6. Now open your left nostril and exhale. Again, wait a moment before inhaling.

That’s an alternate nostril breathing cycle, which can last up to a minute.

Claire says you should repeat the process for about 10 minutes or until you feel calm enough.

2. Lion’s Breath

Like alternate nostril breathing, Claire says that lion breathing is a yogic breathing exercise (or pranayama) predominantly done during a yoga session.

“However, its ability to relieve stress makes it useful for anyone looking for a breathing exercise to calm down,” he says.

‘This is done sitting, either in a chair or on the floor, with your hands on your knees or on the floor.’

  1. Spread your fingers wide and inhale through your nose.
  2. Open your mouth and stick out your tongue. Pull it up to your chin.
  3. Take a big exhale, pushing air through your tongue and making a ‘ha’ sound from deep in your abdomen.
  4. Take a short break breathing normally before starting again.

Repeat the cycle several times to see the benefits.

Yogic breathing practices like lion’s breath have been proven to work effectively in reducing stress.

3. Breathing 4-4-4

Claire says that 4-4-4 breathing, also commonly known as box breathing, is one of the easiest breathing techniques you can practice to help calm anxiety.

“It’s perfect as a quick fix to reduce stress by distracting your mind and body,” she adds.

“In fact, if you’ve taken a minute to take a deep breath, you’ve probably gotten close to box breathing.”

  1. Breathe in and then exhale to the count of four.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Inhale to the count of four.
  4. Hold your breath for four seconds.

A few rounds of box breathing should help keep your elevated heart rate down and distract you from the anxiety-provoking situation around you.

Sitting with your spine extended and your chest open is the best way to practice this technique, but it can also be done standing up.

4. 4-7-8 Breathing

“Also known as relaxing breathing, 4-7-8 breathing follows the same principles as 4-4-4 breathing,” says Claire.

Get into a sitting position, either in a chair or cross-legged on the floor or on your bed.

  1. Inhale to the count of four.
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  3. Exhale to the count of eight.

Relaxing breathing is the perfect breathing technique before bed as it reduces feelings of tension and anxiety to help you sleep better at night.

5. Pursed-lip breathing

For many breathing techniques, Claire says pursed lips can help make your breathing more effective and purposeful.

“Pursed lips also have a technique of their own,” he says. ‘You can do this when you’re sitting or when you’re active.’

  1. Inhale slowly through your nose for two seconds. Keep your mouth shut.
  2. Purse your lips, as if you are about to whistle or sip through a straw.
  3. Exhale through your mouth while you count to four.

This technique is especially good for slowing down your breathing and limiting the distress caused by shortness of breath.

‘Once you have mastered this technique, your breathing will be more efficient, helping your body to do less work when breathing.’

6. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing, is a breathing technique with a lot of research supporting its benefits.

“Research published in Frontiers in Psychology says it can reduce the negative physiological and subjective consequences of stress in healthy adults,” says Claire.

‘To practice it, take a sitting position or lie down.’

  1. Place one hand on your chest and the other just below your rib cage on your abdomen.
  2. Inhale slowly through your nose, feeling the air move into your abdomen.
  3. As you do this, your belly will expand and push out, but your chest should remain relatively still.
  4. Purse your lips and exhale slowly for a few seconds.
  5. Throughout, take note of how your stomach expands and makes contact, but your chest only makes slight movements.

For maximum effect, repeat this cycle several times.

7. Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing, or coherent breathing, is another great way to reduce anxiety, respond positively to stress, and achieve a more relaxed self.

Claire says: ‘To begin resonance breathing, lie down and close your eyes.

  1. Inhale slowly through your nose while counting to six. Be careful not to fully inflate your lungs.
  2. Gently exhale for six seconds.
  3. Throughout the process (about 10 minutes), focus on your body and how it feels when the breath moves in and out.

‘Evidence shows that resonance breathing can have positive effects on a wide range of modifiers related to anxiety, stress and mood.

“Research from Brigham Young University showed positive results for heart rate variability, reduced blood pressure response to stress, and more positive mood.”

8. Long exhalation

Claire says that longer exhalations can help you combat your fight-or-flight stress response and improve your heart rate variability, which over time can help us deal with stress better.

“This is what recent research (summarized by Psychology Today) has found in the industry,” he says.

“As a breathing technique, it means breathing out for longer than you breathe in.”

  1. Breathe in for a short period, about 2-3 seconds.
  2. Pause at the top of your breath for a second.
  3. Gently exhale for twice the inhalation time, about 4-6 seconds.
  4. Continue for at least five minutes and monitor your mood and feelings of anxiety for improvements.

“When we are stressed, too many inhalations can lead us to activate our fight or flight instincts and hyperventilate.

“This technique, which can be done standing, lying down, or sitting, can help keep those overwhelming feelings at bay.”

9. Teddy bear breathing

The technique with the cutest name, teddy bear breathing, is very similar to diaphragmatic breathing, but adds a child’s toy to the exercise to engage younger people.

  1. Place one hand on your chest. Place a teddy bear or toy on your belly and support it with your other hand.
  2. Inhale slowly through your nose, feeling the air move into your belly.
  3. As he does, his belly will expand and push the bear out. Your chest should stay almost where it is.
  4. Purse your lips and exhale slowly for a few seconds.
  5. At all times, notice how the bear moves up and down with its belly, but its chest only makes slight movements.

“You could try this one with your kids,” Claire says, “helping them become more aware of their breath and less concerned about the world around them.”

My Possible Self is a free NHS-backed mental health app that provides holistic and engaging tools to support and improve mental wellbeing, including a guided ‘overcoming my anxiety’ series.

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