How breathing can help tame your mind and reduce anxiety
I feel anxiety in my body before my mind becomes conscious of exactly what’s going on. A feeling of restlessness morphs into jitters, like having had too much caffeine. I sometimes liken it to having a million ants crawling inside my body. My heart races and my chest feels tight. It’s moments like these that I reach for my toolbox of breathing techniques for anxiety to help me ease my mind and my body.
Breathwork has seen a huge rise in popularity and acceptance in recent years. Even the NHS recommends exercises on its website. But what is it that makes our breath so powerful?
The two types of breathing
We all do it. Approximately 23,040 times a day apparently, and most of the time we don’t even have to think about it. When we breathe in, our cells take up oxygen and release carbon dioxide. If we get our breath wrong, this exchange can be upset, contributing to familiar issues such as anxiety, panic attacks and fatigue.
Essentially there are two types of breathing. Both have their place in our physiology, but they give very different results:
- Thoracic (chest) breathing, and
- Diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing.
Why don’t you find out which you’re doing right now? Put one hand on your chest and the other on your upper abdomen and breathe. Which hand moves the most? That’s the type of breathing you’re doing.
What’s the difference between the two?
Shallow and normally quite quick, chest breathing is integral in how our bodies deal with stressful situations and strenuous exercise. The fact that it activates our chest muscles can exacerbate any feelings of anxiety we may be experiencing by making our chest feel constricted.
Abdominal breathing is much more relaxed and, for the body, it’s the most natural and efficient way of getting air into your lungs. Characterised by even and deep breaths, we see this type of breathing in children and babies (before society perhaps teaches us to hold in our stomachs to achieve the right slimline look).
The sciencey bit
If we’re put in a stressful situation, our bodies will react in a way that has been working since the dawn of time - the fight or flight response.
Our bodies orchestrate a chain reaction starting with the sounding of an alarm in the brain, which then moves to the autonomic nervous system that controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat and the lungs. Our autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. You can think of the sympathetic nervous system as like a gas pedal, it gets you ready to react in times of danger. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system acts as a brake, slowing you down and calming you.
Normally these high-alert situations are short-lived and when the brain believes the danger has passed, it commands the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, producing a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body. However, if we stay in a situation perceived as stressful for a longer time, such as chronic low-level anxiety or stress, our bodies will stay in the sympathetic state, which can eventually lead to a variety of health issues.
Ideally, we want to be in the parasympathetic state where breathing is slow, regular and deep as much as possible. And as a matter of fact, we can learn to trigger and strengthen this state through different ways such as spending time in nature, getting a massage, playing with animals and children, practising yoga and doing a hobby we enjoy. But one of the best and, in times of stress, most effective ways of doing this is through breathwork.
(If you’re interested in reading more about the science of breathing, there’s a great article here.)
Breathing techniques for anxiety
We’ve seen breathwork become an integral part of the health and wellness industry in recent years, but spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism have long recognised the benefits that working with our breath can bring.
‘The way we breathe has a potent impact on the quality of our mind and our perceived energy levels. The mantra is ‘when we breathe better we feel better.’ Working with the breath is the ultimate self-care tool – it doesn’t take any time or effort and we can literally do it anywhere. What we’re aiming for is a relaxed, expansive breath, and just by tuning in with the breath it tends to smooth itself out on its own.’
So with all that in mind, here are some of our favourite breathing techniques for anxiety here at The Positive Planner:
Your diaphragm is a muscle that sits beneath your lungs. If we concentrate on breathing from here, we can really reduce the work our bodies have to do.
To start, sit or lie down comfortably and follow these instructions:
- Gently lay one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, just above your tummy button.
- Breathe in through your nose and be conscious that your stomach, rather than your chest is rising.
- Exhale through pursed lips. Try to use your stomach muscles here, pushing the air out at the end of the breath.
This type of breathing does need some daily practice - the experts say up to 10mins a few times a day. It can make you feel tired at first but it gets easier the more you do it.
We know we should focus on our breath, but it’s crucial to look at the rhythm of it too. The 4-7-8 exercise will help you clear your mind, find some peace and kick-start your parasympathetic pathway.
Start by finding a quiet spot and sit or stand with your back straight.
- Empty your lungs with an audible exhale.
- Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4, and hold for 7.
- Exhale forcibly through your mouth for 8, making a ‘whoosh’ sound through pursed lips.
- Repeat for 4 cycles.
It really is that simple - this graphic can guide you:
Ancient yogis were so convinced by the calming and grounding effects of the breath that they developed an entire section of yoga to it: Pranayama, which means ‘life force regulation through breath control’ in Sanskrit.
Yoga focuses the breath in its practice of the different asanas, but there are multiple exercises which use breathwork alone. Two which you might find helpful are Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and Ujjayi (also known as warrior, ocean or victorious breath). Both are variations of breath control and serve to centre ourselves in the moment, bringing our parasympathetic nervous systems to the fore.
We most often associate mindful breathing with meditation and the two do go hand-in-hand. Many guided meditations will ask you to focus on the breath and by doing this, you can take yourself away from any repeated thoughts that may be causing you anxiety.
There are so many different meditations out there to try, but we especially love the Headspace and Insight Timer apps and also our friend Lucy Stone from Meditation Rocks, who does short, live meditations on Facebook.
Quieting response (QR)
This is another practice that works with rhythmic breathing. It concentrates on a repetitive cycle of tension and relaxation, specifically working with visualisation while you are making and releasing a fist. There’s an excellent article with guidance on how to do it here.
Breathwork isn’t always easy, especially in crisis moments and I personally struggle to concentrate on my breath at these times. If I close my eyes, my thoughts immediately race back to my worries, so I prefer to have something visual I can focus on and you might be surprised to hear I often turn to GIFs. Being able to concentrate on a moving image like this really helps:
If you know you struggle with breathwork in these moments, why not put together a little calming kit that you can always have at your side? Engaging our senses can be especially powerful, so gently rubbing an essential oil such as lavender on your temples or simply smelling it can work wonders (please use with caution). Touch plays an important part too - I know someone who carries a smooth pebble with them to rub when they’re feeling anxious.
I really do believe these breathing techniques for anxiety can help in times of stress, but please take care. If your symptoms get worse, do see a doctor or practitioner. You don’t have to suffer alone.
Much love and positive vibes,