Breathing Easy: A Guide to Managing Anxiety with Breathing Techniques
Updated: Mar 25
"Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment." - Thich Nhat Han
Anxiety affects millions of people worldwide, causing feelings of nervousness, restlessness and a sense of impending doom. When anxiety strikes, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate. This "fight or flight" response prepares the body to respond to a perceived threat.
One of the most effective ways to counter the body's anxiety response is controlled breathing techniques. Breathing techniques activate the body's relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for promoting relaxation and reducing stress.
The parasympathetic "rest and digest" response helps the body rest and recover from stress. When we practice deep, slow breathing, we stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen. By activating the vagus nerve, we slow down our heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and reduce respiration rate. This physiological response alleciates anxiety and promotes feelings of well-being.
Here are four different breathing techniques that can be helpful for managing anxiety:
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing:
This technique involves breathing deeply into the diaphragm rather than the chest, allowing for more air intake and promoting relaxation. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your belly rise and expand. Exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your belly fall and contract. Repeat for several minutes, focusing on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body.
2. Box Breathing:
This technique involves breathing in a pattern of four counts in, four counts hold, four counts out, and four counts hold, creating a square or "box" pattern. To practice box breathing, sit or stand in a comfortable position. Breathe in deeply through your nose for four counts, hold your breath and exhale slowly through your mouth for four counts. Repeat for several minutes, focusing on the rhythm of your breath.
3. Pursed Lip Breathing:
This technique involves exhaling through pursed lips, creating a resistance that slows down the breathing rate and promotes relaxation. To practice pursed lip breathing, sit or stand in a comfortable position. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and then exhale slowly through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle. Repeat for several minutes, focusing on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing:
This technique involves alternating breathing through each nostril, promoting balance and relaxation. To practice alternate nostril breathing, sit in a comfortable position with your left hand resting on your left knee, and your right hand in front of your face. Using your right thumb, close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Then, close your left nostril with your right ring finger, release your right nostril, and exhale slowly through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril, close it with your right thumb, release your left nostril, and exhale through your left nostril. Repeat for several minutes, focusing on the rhythm of your breath.
In addition to practicing breathing techniques, individuals can also benefit from incorporating other relaxation techniques into their daily routine, such as meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation. These practices can complement breathing techniques and promote further relaxation and stress reduction.
It is important to note that while breathing techniques can be helpful in managing anxiety, they are not a substitute for professional help. If you are experiencing severe or persistent anxiety symptoms, it is important to seek out the guidance of a mental health professional. They can work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan that may include breathing techniques as well as other evidence-based interventions. With the right support and resources, individuals can learn to manage their anxiety and improve their overall well-being.