Easy Breathing Exercises to Control Anxiety, Stress, and Panic Attacks
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When we’re too anxious or stressed, our heart rate increases, and our breathing patterns change. Instead of slow, deep breaths from our lower lungs, we take rapid and shallow breaths from our upper lungs. And this feeling can happen at any time, and sometimes we know the reason, but other times we aren't sure why.
Keep reading to learn how you can balance your response system through your breath so that you know what to do during anxiety.
This overwhelming feeling happens as part of our body’s natural “fight or flight” instinct. When it senses danger, it increases heart rate and breathing, so we have more energy and oxygen to either defeat a perceived enemy or run away from it. And “danger” in this case is very subjective.
But sometimes, we end up exhaling more than inhaling, which causes our carbon dioxide levels to drop. This is called hyperventilation. Your body’s natural “balance of breathing” is disrupted.
Take control of your breaths to take control of your fear during anxiety.
Hyperventilation can be a terrifying experience. You’re gasping and struggling to catch your breath, and the lack of oxygen can make you feel even more disoriented and afraid.
You can become lightheaded. Your chest may feel tight, heavy, or even painful. Your hands and feet may feel tingly or numb or start trembling uncontrollably.
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It’s a vicious cycle: your fear causes hyperventilation, and the hyperventilation worsens your anxiety. You feel like you’re losing control.
But you do have control. When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, the first step is to restore your natural balance of breathing. The symptoms you feel happen by the imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Studies show that when you take control of your breathing, and you will immediately feel physically better—and more mentally prepared to deal with whatever has triggered your fear.
Here are some breathing exercises you can use in a panic attack, as well as some ways to “train your breathing” to stay calm and focused throughout the day.
Belly Breathing / Diaphragmatic Breathing for Anxiety
When you take shallow breaths, your body must work doubly hard to bring oxygen into the lungs. You have to shift to a more comfortable and more efficient way to breathe—by using your diaphragm. There are clinical studies that prove that this an effective way to deal with anxiety attacks.
Your diaphragm is the muscle underneath your lungs. It can help you take longer, deeper breaths so your body gets oxygen while your heart rate slows down.
Once you learn diaphragmatic breathing (also called belly breathing or abdomen breathing), you can calm yourself whenever you feel anxious or stressed.
- Lie down on a bed or the floor, with a pillow under your head and knees. If you can’t lie down, sit in a comfortable chair with your shoulders relaxed and your feet flat on the floor.
- Place one hand on your heart, and the other under your rib cage.
- Slowly inhale and exhale through your nose. Pay attention to how your chest and your stomach rises and falls with each breath. Compare how your body feels when you take shallow breaths, medium breaths, and deep breaths. What kind of breaths only make the chest move? What kind of breath makes your stomach move?
- Now, concentrate on the kind of breathing that makes your stomach move. First, take a deep breath through your nose. The hand on your chest should barely be moving. Hold it for a few seconds. Then, exhale through your mouth, pursing your lips and tighten your stomach muscles as you slowly release your breath. Repeat this for five minutes. Can you feel the difference in your body?
It takes time before you learn how to diaphragmatic breathing instinctively. Practice this exercise 10 minutes a day, about three to four times a day. Gradually increase the time to 15, 20, and 30 minutes.
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As you become more comfortable with it, you can strengthen your diaphragm muscles by placing a heavy book on your abdomen whenever you practice.
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4-7-8 Breathing to Calm Anxiety
This breathing method also uses diaphragmatic breathing, but helps guide you with the number of counts per breath. It’s very useful when you start to feel a panic or anxiety attack—you don’t have to think, just count.
- Stand with shoulders relaxed and your back straight.
- Place one hand on your belly, and another on your chest.
- Slowly and deeply inhale, silently counting from 1 to 4.
- Hold your breath, while counting from 1 to 7
- Slowly exhale, silently counting from 1 to 8.
- Repeat 10 times or until you feel calmer.
Focused Breathing that Balances Your Response System to Anxiety
When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, your mind becomes overactive. You start jumping from one idea to another. You start imagining worst case scenarios, or you start overanalyzing.
Soon, these thoughts are colored by emotions like fear, anger, frustration, regret or helplessness. No wonder you feel overwhelmed!
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Zen practitioners call this situation the Monkey Mind. Just like monkeys swinging from one branch to another, your mind is jumping from one negative (and exhausting!) thought and emotion to another.
But you can’t tell your Monkey Mind to “Just Sit Still” – that’s against its nature. Instead of trying to force it to “Be Calm and Quiet” give it something else to focus on.
That’s why Zen practitioners practice Focused Breathing, where your Monkey Mind pay conscious attention to your breath, rather than the thoughts crowding your mind.
- Close your eyes.
- Mentally take note of how your body feels. Is your jaw clenched, are your shoulders tight? If it helps, you can verbalize what every body part feels. “My head hurts. My jaw is clenched. I feel hot.” This helps you center yourself and focus on yourself.
- Take a deep breath. Pay attention to how it moves through your body. Your belly expands. Your shoulders rise. Imagine the oxygen coursing through your body, bringing healing life energy.
- Hold the breath for a few seconds. At this moment, you can try repeating a self-affirmation, mantra, or a focus word like “Safe” or “Calm.” Or, you can think of a person, place or thing that makes you feel good.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth. Imagine releasing the negative emotions and energy with that breath. You can exhale silently, or release a deep sigh or groan—whatever works for you.
You can do this technique any time, but it’s best to make this part of your daily routine.
Do this in the morning to mentally prepare yourself for the day, and in the evening to relax before going to bed.
When you start to feel anxious, find a quiet room and try to do this for 5 minutes. It can help you manage your stress levels, so that they don’t escalate to the point of a panic attack.
Yoga Ocean Breathing
Yoga uses many different breathing techniques that can help you center yourself and restore balance.
The simplest and most basic yoga breathing is the Abdominal Breath, which is very similar to diaphragmatic breathing. However, there are advanced yoga breathing techniques that can help you release pent-up stress or increase your energy levels.
Ujayi or Ocean Breath involves tightening the back of your throat when you inhale and exhale, so your breath sounds like the sound of ocean waves. Then, follow these steps:
- Sit in a comfortable chair, with your back straight and feet flat on the floor.
- Close your mouth and breathe through your nose.
- As you inhale air into your lungs (mentally counting from 1 to 4), expand your lower belly.
- Hold your breath for 8 counts.
- As you exhale (mentally counting from 1 to 12), contract your lower belly.
- Repeat this about 15 times, or approximately 5 minutes.
Feeling Anxious? Just Breathe
These breathing exercises can help you conquer anxiety, manage stress, and remain focused and energetic throughout the day. I hope these can help you stay calm and feel in control in any situation.
However, if you regularly get panic or anxiety attacks, don’t be afraid to seek treatment from a professional (see my Holistic Healing here). They can provide the support and tools to help you feel better, stronger and more in control. There’s nothing “weak” about asking for help - it is the strongest and smartest thing you can do for yourself.
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