woman breathing to ease her anxiety

Breathing exercises to relieve anxiety

Breathing is such a natural process that most of the time, we do it without being aware. However, when in times of stress, breathing can become rapid and shallow, adding to feelings of anxiousness.

Taking time to learn about different types of breath and practising simple breathing exercises for anxiety can help you overcome these feelings.

The reciprocal relationship between breathing and anxiety

If you feel stressed or anxious, your body will typically instigate its fight-or-flight response. The brain doesn’t differentiate between physical or emotional threats but reacts in the same way, increasing the breathing and the heart rate to get blood to the muscles faster.1 This increased heart rate is to prepare you to tackle a physical threat or run away from it.

Nowadays, we don’t often experience these sorts of threats. But, when facing modern-day concerns, the brain will still produce this response.

This increase in breathing, or hyperventilation, causes an upset in the balance between our body’s oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. You may begin to feel lightheaded, as this unbalance reduces the blood supply to the brain, and your fingers may start to tingle. Severe hyperventilation can even result in a loss of consciousness. 2

This reaction can increase levels of anxiety, exacerbating the situation. However, learning to control your breathing through simple breathing exercises can reduce stress and allow your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to return to normal.

How to identify the different types of breathing

There are two ways of breathing. These are thoracic breathing (from the chest) and diaphragmatic breathing (from the abdominals).

Thoracic breathing

The rapid, shallow breathing experienced when feeling anxious comes from the chest. This way of breathing can add to feelings of anxiety, as the intakes of breath do not feel satisfying, and can make you feel as though you are suffocating.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The diaphragm is a muscle located at the base of the lungs. When you breathe diaphragmatically, this muscle contracts and moves downwards, providing more space for your lungs to expand. This downwards movement pushes on the stomach muscles and forces the abdominal wall out.3

The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing encourages the optimal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It slows the heart rate and can lower blood pressure. The knock-on effect is that we feel more relaxed, and anxiety levels drop. 4

A simple breathing exercise to alleviate anxiety

Practice this simple breathing exercise to help lower levels of anxiety.5 You can be standing, sitting or lying when completing this exercise. However, focus on relaxing your body and ensure there is no tension through your shoulders.
  1. Inhale deeply through your nose and focus on this action inflating your abdomen. The rise in your chest should be minimal.
  2. Exhale slowly and steadily through your mouth, keeping your jaw muscles relaxed. It may help to purse your lips slightly and create a whooshing sound with your exhale.
  3. Repeat this breathing technique calmly and steadily for a few minutes.

If focusing on your breathing in this way is making you feel more anxious, stop. It can take practice to feel the benefits of this technique, so try to do a little at a time and build up slowly.

Some natural supplements can also be helpful alongside these breathing techniques to relax, reduce feelings of anxiety, and improve your sleeping patterns.

Last updated: 22 April 2020

Alternative HealthMental HealthMind & BodyStress