Humans take approximately 23,000 breaths a day. Breathing usually is not something that you think about, rather it is an action that your body just performs. However, focusing on breathing can be a great way to ease both physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. Though breathing exercises cannot cure anxiety, it is a helpful and convenient tool to control and cope with anxious feelings and lower your baseline level of anxiety.
The Science Behind Why Diaphragmatic Breathing Can Ease Anxiety:
Research has shown that diaphragmatic breathing releases more oxygen into your bloodstream, lowers your blood pressure, slows your heart rate, and releases muscle tensions. Deep breathing engages your autonomic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for involuntary bodily functions like digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure.
One part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight or flight response. When you are experiencing a stressful situation, your body’s fight or flight response is triggered, which can cause you to feel anxious. While your nervous system is always active, it is particularly active when you are feeling stressed. Deep breathing exercises can help calm your sympathetic nervous system, like your heart rate, which ultimately reduces feelings of stress and anxiety (Princing, 2022).
Mentally, concentrating on your breath can encourage your mind and body to reach a state of mindfulness, bringing you into the present moment rather than having a stressed mental state. When your mind and body get stressed, the body resorts to irregular breathing patterns. Shifting your breathing to a slow and relaxed pattern can help you enter a state of awareness and relaxation, ultimately easing symptoms of stress and anxiety. Slow and deep breaths can also offer your mind and body a sense of regained control in instances of heightened stress and anxiety.
Chest vs Abdominal Breathing
When you breathe, it is unlikely that you are conscious about your breathing patterns. However, your breathing patterns can indicate a lot about your body and emotions. There are generally two types of breathing patterns: Thoracic (chest) breathing and Diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing.
Thoracic breathing involves short and rapid breaths that come directly from the chest. This type of breathing happens when you are stressed or anxious, and you may not even notice that you are breathing this way. The diaphragm is still active in chest breathing, but it does not fully engage your lungs and involves very shallow breaths. This type of breathing is perfectly okay in some instances, but diaphragmatic breathing can be helpful when you are trying to relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a form of deep breathing that involves your diaphragm, the muscle located below your lungs and above your abdomen. By deep breathing, you are allowing your lungs to fully expand and fill.
How To Practice Different Deep Breathing Exercises For Anxiety:
There are several different types of deep breathing exercises for anxiety such as diaphragmatic breathing and box breathing.
This type of deep breathing exercise can be performed by contracting your diaphragm, extending your belly, and taking deep inhales and exhales. Here are some common steps that many people follow to do diaphragmatic breathing:
- Try to find a comfortable place to sit or lie down
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly right below your ribcage
- Allow yourself, especially your belly, to relax. Unclench your muscles and try to release any tension in your body
- Begin by breathing in slowly through your nose. Breathe in until your lungs are fully filled. Your hand on your chest should remain still while your hand on your belly moves towards your hand.
- Exhale slowly through your lips, and make sure your hand on your chest is remaining relatively still. Focus on making your exhale as long as possible
- Try to set a timer for a minimum of 3 minutes to do this type of breathing exercise. If you are able to do this 3-5 minutes daily, that is a great place to start.
It can be very helpful to perform this exercise in instances of heightened stress or anxiety, but it also is important to integrate this exercise into your daily routine as a way to help manage anxiety levels overall. Performing this exercise when you wake up can be a great way to start your day, or you can perform it before bed to release the stress you feel from a long day and get into a state of relaxation before bed. It may also be beneficial to do this during a lunch break to take a moment for yourself and really try to relax your mind and body.
Another variation of a deep breathing exercise for anxiety is called box breathing. This technique can also improve your mood and relieve tension within the body. Box breathing usually follows these steps:
- Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Be conscious of the air filling your lungs and try to fill them completely.
- Hold this breath for four seconds. Try not to inhale or exhale at all.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth, lips slightly pursed, for four seconds.
- Repeat the pattern at a pace that works for you, but ideally repeating this cycle four times in each sitting
Takeaway For Why Deep Breathing Exercises are Helpful for Anxiety
Research suggests that diaphragmatic breathing exercises allow the body to relax and are beneficial for physical and mental health (Ma et al., 2017). It is important to recognize that though deep breathing exercises for anxiety may sound simple, they can actually be difficult to perform. If you have never tried breathing exercises, it is possible it may make you dizzy or lightheaded at first. Make sure to consult a medical professional if you have any concerns. Your mind is also likely going to wander away from your breath. Every time it does this just try to focus on bringing it back to your breath. It is so important to practice self-compassion while you are performing these exercises. They take practice to be able to clear your mind and focus on your breathing. Stick with it and appreciate that you are taking healthy steps to care for yourself.
It is also important to recognize that deep breathing exercises for anxiety are not a standalone treatment. Although deep breathing exercises are a helpful tool, they may need to be paired with other forms of anxiety or stress management treatment to be most effective. If you are struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues, we are happy to help at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness. Please reach out for a free consultation so that we can help you achieve your goals and address any issues you may be facing.
Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., Wei, G.-X., & Li, Y.-F. (2017, June 6). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
Princing, M. K. (2022, June 14). What is Deep Breathing? Right as Rain by UW Medicine. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/stress/why-deep-breathing-makes-you-feel-so-chill
Thank you Jacqueline Zimmerman, Best Within You Therapy & Wellness intern, for her help with this blog post.