Most of us are familiar with that creeping feeling of anxiety, like the walls are closing in and the air around us is getting harder to breathe. Anxiety often causes us to feel breathless, and more often than not it’s because we are shallow breathing, taking short, rapid breaths from our upper lungs. Shallow breathing can lead to hyperventilation, reducing the amount of oxygen-rich blood flow to your brain. It is the main feature of panic attacks, and can make you feel out of control, increasing anxiety even more.
It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s one that can be stopped with the right tools and techniques.
Instead of letting our breathing run away with us, we need to take back control and practice breathing from our lower lungs, even in moments of high stress.
Here are some simple breathing techniques you can do to calm your anxiety and slow down your racing mind and breath.
1. Lengthen your inhales and exhales
To prevent shallow breathing, we can use a simple exercise known as the 4-7 breathing technique.
This technique will focus on controlling your inbreath and lengthening your outbreath. Breathing out is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system – otherwise known as the rest and digest state – and is the system which is in charge of our body’s ability to relax. Deepening our exhales moves us from the flight-or-fight state to the rest-and-digest state, acting as a natural de-stressor.
Here’s how the 4-7 breathing technique works:
- Focus on your breath as you inhale for the count of 4
- Hold your breath for a second
- Focus on exhaling slowly for the count of 7
- Repeat for 5 minutes, or however long it takes for you to calm down
You can do this technique anywhere, and in any position that’s comfortable for you. The key is to slow down and deepen your breathing.
2. Conscious breathing
Focusing on your breath is a great way to bring your attention to the here and now, instead of worrying about the past or future.
This technique is often used in yoga and meditation, and is all about breath and body awareness:
- Find a comfortable position, sitting or lying down
- Inhale deeply through your nose and feel your belly and upper body rising and expanding
- Exhale slowly through your mouth and notice your belly and upper body falling and relaxing. You can sigh on your exhale if you wish
- If you like, you can choose a word to focus on, for example: peace, calm, safe. Feel the word and the feeling wash over you on each inhale and exhale
- Practice this technique for 15 minutes, or however long it takes for you to feel calm
This technique is also a good way to prevent anxiety creeping up on you. 15 minutes of conscious breathing a day is enough to make a profound difference.
3. Belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing)
More often than not, especially if we are stressed, busy or breathing “unconsciously” we are breathing from our chest. Belly breathing – or diaphragmatic breathing – can help reduce the amount of effort it takes your body to inhale and exhale.
The aim is to breathe from your abdomen instead of from your chest:
- Lay down in a comfortable position. This technique can also be practiced sitting up, but beginners will get a better feel for it when lying horizontal
- Put one hands on your chest, and the other on your abdomen
- As you breathe in through your nose, try to expand and fill your belly with air first. You should notice your belly rise while your chest remains somewhat still.
- As you breathe out, purse your lips and exhale through your mouth, gently pushing the air out of your belly. Your belly will fall, and your chest should remain relatively still.
Don’t worry if you don’t get it the first time. It takes daily practice for this type of breathing to become automatic.
If you’re not used to breathing from your diaphragm, this technique will be tiring at first. Stick with it though, 10 minutes a couple of times a day will make a huge difference.
4. Ujjayi Breath
A yogic pranayama (breathing technique) Ujjayi breath will help calm and control your inhales and exhales while warming the body.
Also known as “ocean breath,” Ujjayi breathing involves constricting your throat muscles on your exhale to produce a sound like the waves of the ocean, or the wind rustling through the trees:
- Take a deep breath in through the nose, filling your lungs
- On your exhale, constrict your throat muscles as you breathe out. You can try this with your mouth open first, making a “haa” sound, as if you’re trying to fog up a mirror in front of you
- Do this for 15 minutes, or however long it takes to feel relaxed. Remember, you should be producing a gentle ocean-like sound on your exhale
Restricting the passageway for air out of your lungs will help you control and slow down your breathing. This way, you’ll be able to prevent yourself from hyperventilating.
5. Lion’s Breath
Another yogic breathing technique, Lion’s Breath focuses more on a forced, powerful exhale. It helps relieve stress and get rid of blocked tension by stretching your facial muscles and releasing excess energy held in your jaw.
Although Lion’s Breath can be practiced in any position, it’s most often done by sitting back on your heels with your hands on your thighs.
Here’s how to practice Lion’s Breath:
- Get into a kneeling position and sit back on your heels, placing your hands on your thighs. Keep your arms stretched, and your spine straight, chin parallel to the floor. If you find this position uncomfortable, you can choose to sit cross-legged or even lying down
- Take a deep breath in through your nose
- Open your mouth wide and exhale forcefully making a strong, vocalized “haaaa!” sound
- When you exhale, stretch your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out, stretching it towards your chin
- Focus your gaze on the tip of your nose or the middle of your forehead as you exhale
- Allow your muscles to relax. You can repeat this process up to 6 times, or however many feels good for you
This is one technique you might not want to practice on a bus full of people unless you want them thinking you’re the exorcist.
6. Bhramari Breathing
Bhramari breathing, or Bhramari pranayama is a yogic breathing technique that helps block out any external stimuli while calming the nervous system. Also known as Bee Breath, it involves making a low humming sound as you close your ears and eyes.
This technique is best done on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning or before going to bed. Make sure you’re in a safe place where you won’t be disturbed for practicing this breathing technique.
Here’s how Bhramari breathing works:
- Sit in a comfortable position, cross-legged is best, with your spine straight and your shoulders back
- Bring your hands up in front of your face, open up your palms and close your ears with your thumbs. Cover your eyes with your index and middle fingers
- Breathe in deeply and exhale slowly, making a low humming sound as you breathe out. Just like the buzzing of a bee
- Notice the vibrations of the sound in your body
- Do this for up to 20 minutes, or however long you feel comfortable
Again, this is something that’s best done at home or in private, where you won’t be disturbed.
7. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Also known as Nadi Shodhana in yogic terms, alternate nostril breathing is known to clear energy blockages and help create equilibrium in the body.
This technique helps lower your heart rate and reduce anxiety while synchronizing the two hemispheres of your brain. It is also said to purify the energy channels, making it easier to practice other breathing techniques.
Here’s how to practice alternate nostril breathing:
- Sit in a comfortable position, lengthening your spine and relaxing your shoulders
- Rest your left hand in your lap and bring your right hand up to your face, with your index and middle fingers resting on your forehead
- Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose
- Before taking another inhale, use your thumb to close your right nostril and slowly inhale through the left
- Gentle pinch your left nostril closed too with your ring finger and hold your breath for a couple of seconds
- Release your thumb from your right nostril and exhale slowly through the right
- Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale slowly through the right nostril
- Pinch both nostrils closed and hold for a few seconds
- Release your ring finger from your left nostril and exhale slowly through the left
- Repeat this cycle of breathing in and breathing out through each nostril up to 10 times
Don’t practice alternate nostril breathing while suffering from a cold, flu, or other sinus-affecting illness.
These are just some of the effective breathing techniques you can use whenever you feel anxiety creeping in.
Use these techniques alongside yoga, meditation, or visualization to help restore calm into your body and mind.