Breathing is one of the most important things that we do, yet we give it very little thought – mostly because we don’t usually need to, it just happens! However, during times of stress, anxiety or panic, paying closer attention to our breathing can make an instant positive difference to how we feel.
Introducing some breathing techniques into your daily routine can help you to keep feelings of stress and anxiety to manageable levels. Breathing techniques are also used by those looking to improve or enhance performance or efficiency, for example most world-class athletes or artistic performers will use breathing techniques to help them achieve peak performance, right when it matters the most.
Below, we explain how you can use three popular breathing exercises to relax, focus and unwind. They’re quick and easy to do and can offer powerful rewards with practice.
Why is the quality of our breathing important?
When you breathe air in, your blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, which gets expelled as you breathe out. The quality of this oxygen exchange can affect how calm and in control of your body you feel. Typically, the more oxygen you breathe in, the more carbon dioxide will be released into the bloodstream; and whilst excess carbon dioxide is removed by exhaling, carbon dioxide in its normal range also plays various roles in the human body; such as helping to slow and regulate your heartbeat, and lowering blood pressure. Allowing your lungs to reach their full capacity regularly, can also help to keep them functioning well.
How might stress and anxiety affect our breathing and our bodies?
When you breathe in, your diaphragm (the dome-shaped sheet of muscle beneath our rib cage which is largely responsible for breathing) contracts and moves downwards, allowing the lungs to expand fully and draw in air. Then, as we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards, forcing air back out of the lungs.
Whether you realise it or not, when you feel stressed or anxious, you will typically take shorter, shallower breaths; preventing lung cells from becoming fully oxygenated. This can also happen when we wear clothes that are too tight, have poor posture, or have health conditions that weaken the muscles involved in breathing.
Shallow breathing is known as chest breathing because it doesn’t allow your diaphragm to contract or relax fully. When this happens, you may notice that only your chest rises and falls, but not your belly. Chest breathing reduces the quality of our oxygen exchange and keeps the body tense. It happens when we feel stressed or anxious, but can exacerbate the issue and be responsible for anxiety, fatigue, panic attacks, and a rise in blood pressure.
Conversely, by countering these short, shallow breaths with long, deep ones, we can trick our bodies into reversing its feelings of anxiety, instead having a soothing and calming effect.
How can breathing exercises help to reduce anxiety and stress?
To help our bodies feel more relaxed, we can work on taking deeper, more controlled breaths. Deep breathing – also known as belly or abdominal breathing – encourages full oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, which helps to regulate our heartbeat and lower blood pressure.
When you take slow, deep breaths, you will notice that your stomach rises, rather than your chest. This is because your diaphragm is contracting and relaxing fully, maximising the amount of air passing into and out of your lungs. This process allows your blood to become fully oxygenated, making your body less likely to signal the stress response that causes anxiety and panic attacks.
Deep breathing also encourages us to exhale for longer. When this happens, the brain sends signals to the body’s parasympathetic nervous system signalling that it’s okay for the body to relax and calm down.
3 breathing exercises for anxiety and stress relief
1. Basic belly breathing
As discussed above, belly breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) is a deep breathing technique that allows your diaphragm and lungs to work to their maximum. There are plenty of breathing techniques out there, but the majority of them are based on basic deep breathing (or basic belly breathing), where you practice allowing your diaphragm to relax and contract fully with each cycle of breath.
If you’re new to deep breathing, then the following exercise can offer a great place to start. By practicing this daily, you can help to reduce the amount of work that your body needs to do to breathe properly.
- Sit or lie somewhere comfortable and allow your whole body, including your neck and shoulders to relax. You may find it helpful to close your eyes.
- Then place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest (or you may find it more comfortable to place both on your stomach). Placing a hand on your chest just allows you to make sure that it’s your stomach rising and falling, and not your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling your stomach rise under your hand. There should be little movement in your chest.
- Purse your lips and exhale slowly through your mouth for about three seconds. You can push down very gently on your stomach whilst you’re doing this.
There are no hard and fast rules about how many times that you practice this, but for best results aim to repeat the cycle at least four times. Once you’ve got the hang of basic belly breathing, you might want to try some more advanced breathing techniques such as the 4-7-8 technique or the breath focus technique (see below).
2. The 4-7-8 breathing technique
The 4-7-8 breathing technique has been used to soothe a racing heart and reduce nerves. It forces the mind and body to regulate your breath through counting, which can distract you from replaying worries in your mind. Those who have tried it say that it becomes much more powerful with practice. It’s said to be a great tool to help with sleep because it prevents anxious thoughts from circulating the mind – with some people saying that they fall asleep in as little as one minute!
You may find that you become slightly lightheaded to start with, but this should happen less the more you do it. For best results, try to practice this technique twice a day – it only takes a few minutes and can be hugely beneficial!
You can do this exercise either sitting or lying down – the most important thing is that you’re comfortable. Then, when you’re ready, rest the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth. It’s a good idea to get familiar with this positioning because your tongue will stay here throughout the entire practice. Once you’re comfortable and your tongue is resting in the correct position, you can then move through the following steps to complete your first cycle of breath:
- Allow your lips to part and start exhaling through your mouth. This should be a full breath to the extent that you may make a whooshing sound whilst you do it.
- Once you have exhaled fully, close your mouth and inhale deeply and silently through your nose while counting to four in your head.
- When you reach four, hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Then, exhale fully from your mouth for eight seconds, making that same whooshing sound as you go.
- Practice this pattern four times to achieve four full breaths. With practice, you can work your way up to eight breaths per session.
3. Breath Focus
This breathing exercise uses a calming word or phrase to help you focus and is great for mental detachment. If you’re struggling to stop worrying about the things that you can’t control, or you’re feeling particularly panicked, then you might find this technique particularly helpful. It begins with basic belly breathing (which you can practice using the method in step one).
- Find somewhere peaceful and comfortable to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, and take a few deep breaths. Pay attention to how each breath makes you feel and let your body relax as much as possible. Try to alternate between normal and deep breathing, reflecting on how much more relaxing deep breathing can be. Do this for several minutes.
- Choose a focus word that brings you some peace or happiness. This could be words like “relax” or “peace” – or something entirely different. It will be personal to you and can be any word that makes you feel peaceful and/or positive. Repeat the focus word in your head everytime you breathe in and everytime you breathe out. If this feels like too much, then just repeat it as you exhale.
- The next step is to allow your deep breath and your focus word to work together on a deeper level. Imagine that as you breathe in, you’re breathing in feelings of peace or calm. Let these feelings wash over you. As you breathe out, picture any negative feelings or tension that you’ve been bottling up, leaving your body. If at any time a negative thought pops into your mind, first note it, and then watch it leave your mind and body the next time you exhale. While you are doing this, continue repeating your focus word, with each breath in and each breath out.
- Try to practice this for at least 10 minutes a day. This could be one longer session or a couple of smaller ones.
Breathing exercises don’t always feel natural to start with and some people worry about feeling silly! But you might be surprised how much calmer it can make you feel if you’re willing to give it a try – and how much easier it becomes to stay focussed with practice.
When you’re starting out, it can be easier to stick to practicing your breathing techniques at the same time each day. This is the fastest way to help it become a habit that sticks. If that goal feels unrealistic for you, then try it for a few minutes when you’re feeling particularly anxious or stressed.
If you find that you enjoy these breathing techniques or you’re looking for additional ways to cope with stress and anxiety then you might also find the following guides useful:
- 7 tips for coping with stress and anxiety
- An introduction to mindfulness
- An introduction to yoga
- 10 practices for self-exploration
Have you practiced any of the breathing techniques above? Or do you have any additional techniques that you’d like to share? Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.