The Surprising Way Your Breath Affects Your Anxiety (& 3 Breathing Exercises To Try)

Your breath is your number one tool.

How To Deal With Anxiety Using Breathing Exercises For Stress Management getty

It is no secret that the speed of life has increased. We live in a fast-paced world where we are constantly stimulated by new information, responsibilities, and unexpected events — all of which can lead to feelings of anxiousness.

When we live at this pace, it can be easy to forget that we are breathing at all, much less that the breath is a powerful tool for easing stress, promoting relaxation and learning how to deal with anxiety.


Breathing is, in fact, the first and best line of defense against anxiety. That's why physicians recommend breathing exercises for relaxation, stress management, and control of physiological states caused by stress.

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Various forms of breathing techniques have been shown to:

There are many different ways to use the breath to reduce your anxiety levels.:But in order to reap the benefits, you must first know a few key tactics that apply to most breathing exercises.

Here are 3 ways to use breathing exercises for stress management effectively.

1. Bring attention to your breath

There is a mindfulness component to this breath work. When we focus on the breath, it helps to refocus our attention away from negative thoughts and onto the body.


When focusing on the breath, some people find it helpful to think about the quality of their breathing (e.g. Is each breath deep or shallow? Are the breaths short or long?) and the speed of their breathing.

2. Slow down

Anxiety often causes hyperventilation. To counteract this, it's helpful to slow down the breath, especially the exhale.

Individuals with panic or anxiety disorders are more sensitive to hyperventilation than the general public and take more time to recover after an attack. This has been measured by comparing levels of sweat on the skin, carbon dioxide in the body, and heart rate.

3. Deepen the breath

Anxiety often causes shallow breathing in the top part of the lungs. Shallow and rapid breathing can cause us to blow off too much carbon dioxide (CO2).


When the balance of CO2 in the brain is disrupted, it can cause other symptoms of panic and anxiety. In addition, the constriction of the diaphragm by shallow breathing into the upper lungs also contributes to anxiety.

Breathing into the belly, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, allows the diaphragm to expand and relax. The relaxation of the diaphragm contributes to the lowering of anxiety.

However, in order to truly understand how breathing can be so useful during stressful times, it helps to understand what is going on in the body when it is stimulated or when we experience stress.

When your body feels stress and anxiety, your central nervous system (CNS) is activated.


There are two main branches of the CNS:

  • First, we have the autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of those functions over which we have very little conscious control: metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, endocrine function, etc. It consists of two components: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). All body systems and organs receive instructions from both the SNS and PNS. SNS is the "fight or flight" part of our nervous systems, which accelerates the body, while the PNS is the "rest and digest" component that allows us to slow down.
  • The somatic nervous system, on the other hand, allows for conscious control of skeletal muscles, for example walking, talking, and eating. Anxiety is connected to an overactive SNS. The "fight or flight" response involves our body’s preparation for an emergency situation: the pupils dilate, heartbeat quickens, blood pressure increases, blood flows to the large muscles and critical organs, and stress hormone levels increase.

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While this reaction is invaluable in a true emergency, we live in a world of many stress triggers that may skew our nervous system towards sympathetic dominance. When the SNS is overstimulated, the autonomic system does not get a chance to re-balance.

When we are out of balance, we may end up walking around with anxiety, muscle tension, elevated blood pressure, and poor digestion. This state is called "sympathetic dominance", and may lead to maladies such as hypertension, headaches, TMJ, digestive problems, insomnia, attention problems, pain, and muscle spasms.


But the good news is your breath can help you change that.

Breathing is special because we have both conscious and automatic control of the breath. There are a few other bodily functions, such as blinking, swallowing, chewing and excretion that also have this dual control.

Breath allows for a way to tap into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system balance and can be used to transition from the "fight or flight" response to the "rest and digest" relaxed state of PNS predominance, making it a useful tool for dealing with anxiety.

Notice how you breathe in a situation of fear and anxiety versus a state of relaxation to learn about your breathing patterns.


Once you understand the power of your breath and how to use it, it'll become a useful tool that will help you manage your stress and anxiety.

Here are 3 breathing exercises for stress management that will help you deal with anxiety.

1. Relaxation breathing

Knowing how to control anxiety before it starts allows you to better handle any situation of anxiety and stress. In order to do this, you need to practice breathing for relaxation on a regular basis.


Practice breathing, twice a day for 10 minutes in a comfortable setting and, eventually, you'll be able to do it in a variety of situations.

  • Start by bringing your attention to the breath.
  • Breathe into the belly so that the belly rises. It may help to place one hand on the belly to feel as it rises and falls with the breath. No need to over-breathe or take giant inhales. Keep the inhale comfortable and slow.
  • One technique for slowing down your breathing and focusing on the breath is to silently count to 4 on the inhale and count to 6, 8 or 12 on the exhale. With practice and increasing relaxation, it may be possible to count to increasingly higher numbers on the exhale. Keep counting, and whenever your mind wanders (which it will!), just gently bring it back to the counting and breathing.
  • Keep the breathing and the counting rhythmic.

2. Coherent breathing

Coherent breath is cyclical, with the inhale and exhale of equal length, ideally, within a six-second inhale and six-second exhale.

Many biofeedback devices use this pattern of breathing to facilitate physiological relaxation of the body.


3. Sudarshan Kriya yoga breathing

Much of the research on breathing exercises that exists in the scientific literature focuses on Sudarshan Kriya breathing and related practices, which involve several cyclical breathing patterns, ranging from slow to rapid.

A review article of Sudarshan Kriya published in the International Journal of Yoga in 2013 noted that, "There is mounting evidence to suggest that Sudarshan Kriya yoga can be a beneficial, low-risk, low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders." However, research-based evidence for the benefit of this specific breathing technique is still limited.

These three breathing techniques can be useful on their own or used in concert with each other.

Because the breath is a link between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and is something we have access to all the time, it can be a very powerful ally when we deal with anxiety disorders, panic disorders, or just the stress of everyday life.


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Beata Lewis is an experienced, compassionate psychiatrist and psychotherapist serving the Brooklyn and New York State community. Visit her website for more information on her services.