If you feel breathless due to anxiety, there are breathing techniques you can try to alleviate symptoms and start feeling better.
Let’s look at several techniques you can do at any point during your day. These can build into longer moments for yourself.
- Lengthen your exhale
Inhaling deeply may not always calm you down. Taking a deep breath in is actually linked to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response. But exhaling is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which influences our body’s ability to relax and calm down.
Taking too many deep breaths too quickly can actually cause you to hyperventilate. Hyperventilation decreases the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows to your brain.
When we feel anxious or under stress, it’s easier to breathe too quickly and end up hyperventilating – even if we’re trying to do the opposite.
Before you take a big, deep breath, try a thorough exhale instead. Push all the air out of your lungs, then simply let your lungs do their work inhaling air.
Next, try spending a little bit longer exhaling than you do inhaling. For example, try inhaling for four seconds, then exhale for six.
Try doing this for two to five minutes.
This technique can be done in any position that’s comfortable for you, including standing, sitting, or lying down.
- Abdomen breathing
Breathing from your diaphragm (the muscle that sits just beneath your lungs) can help reduce the amount of work your body needs to do in order to breathe.
To learn how to breathe from your diaphragm:
For comfort, lie down on the floor or bed with pillows beneath your head and knees. Or sit in a comfortable chair with your head, neck, and shoulders relaxed, and your knees bent. Then, put one hand under your rib cage and one hand over your heart. Inhale and exhale through your nose, noticing how or if your stomach and chest move as you breathe.
Can you isolate your breathing so you are bringing air deeper into your lungs? What about the reverse? Can you breathe so your chest moves more than your stomach? Eventually, you want your stomach to move as you breathe, instead of your chest.
Practice belly breathing
Sit or lie down as described above.
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach somewhere above your belly button.
- Breathe in through your nose, noticing your stomach rise. Your chest should remain relatively still.
- Purse your lips and exhale through your mouth. Try engaging your stomach muscles to push air out at the end of the breath.
- For this type of breathing to become automatic, you’ll need to practice it daily. Try doing the exercise three or four times a day for up to 10 minutes.
If you haven’t been using your diaphragm to breathe, you may feel tired at first. It’ll get easier with practice.
- Breath focus
When deep breathing is focused and slow, it can help reduce anxiety. You can do this technique by sitting or lying down in a quiet, comfortable location. Then:
- Notice how it feels when you inhale and exhale normally. Mentally scan your body. You might feel tension in your body that you never noticed.
- Take a slow, deep breath through your nose.
- Notice your belly and upper body expanding.
- Exhale in whatever way is most comfortable for you, sighing if you wish.
- Do this for several minutes, paying attention to the rise and fall of your belly.
- Choose a word to focus on and vocalize during your exhale. Words like “safe” and “calm” can be effective.
- Imagine your inhale washing over you like a gentle wave.
- Imagine your exhale carrying negative and upsetting thoughts and energy away from you.
- When you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to your breath and your words.
- Practice this technique for up to 20 minutes daily when you can.
- Equal breathing
Another form of breathing that stems from the ancient practice of pranayama yoga is equal breathing. This means you’re inhaling for the same amount of time as you’re exhaling.
You can practice equal breathing from a sitting or lying-down position. Whichever position you choose, be sure to get comfortable.
- Shut your eyes and pay attention to the way you normally breathe for several breaths.
- Then, slowly count 1-2-3-4 as you inhale through your nose.
- Exhale for the same four-second count.
- As you inhale and exhale, be mindful of the feelings of fullness and emptiness in your lungs.
- As you continue practicing equal breathing, your second count might vary. Be sure to keep your inhale and exhale the same.
- Guided meditation
Some people use guided meditation to alleviate anxiety by interrupting patterns of thinking that perpetuate stress. You can practice guided meditation by sitting or lying in a cool, dark, comfortable place and relaxing. Then, listen to calming recordings while relaxing your body and steadying your breathing.
Guided meditation recordings help take you through the steps of visualizing a calmer, less stressed reality. It can also help you gain control over intrusive thoughts that trigger anxiety.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, try using one or more of these breathing techniques to see if they can alleviate your symptoms. If your anxiety persists or gets worse, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms and possible treatments. With the right approach, you can regain your quality of life and control over your anxiety.