Slow Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
There’s a close relationship between anxiety and breathing. In some cases, habitually breathing poorly – too shallowly or too quickly, for example – can actually cause or worsen anxiety. Or the opposite happens – anxiety leads to poor quality breathing.
Whichever way it’s come about, not breathing ‘well’ certainly doesn’t help your anxiety. This is good news though because it means you can do something about it. And doing slow breathing exercises for anxiety can definitely help.
NOTE: Slow breathing is also excellent for general stress reduction, even if you don’t specifically get anxious. You can read more here about this: slow breathing to reduce stress.
What’s the relationship between breathing and anxiety?
OK, to some extent breathing is just breathing. You bring air in and you push it out. And you stay alive. However, there are better and worse ways of breathing, in terms of the amount of fresh air and oxygen you’re getting, the amount of carbon dioxide that’s being expelled, and the effect on your nervous system.
Most of our physical energy actually comes from the oxygen we get from breathing – much more than comes from our food! Oxygen is involved in most biochemical reactions in our body and is essential for metabolising food (or stored fat) to generate energy. Getting a plentiful supply of oxygen is therefore vital for our bodies and minds to function effectively and healthily.
Our breathing also greatly influences our nervous system, including our heart rate. Breathing slowly and deeply stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system – the part which takes care of the ‘resting’ activities of our body (digestion, urination, defecation, etc.). As such, slow breathing physiologically calms us down. It dampens the release of stress hormones and facilitates basic relaxation.
(Breathing is about the only aspect of our parasympathetic nervous system which we can voluntarily influence. As such, some doctors argue that by deliberately changing our breathing, we are effectively sending ‘messages’ to different parts of our nervous system, which can affect many aspects of how we’re feeling and reacting. “Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior, ” suggest Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D.).
How anxiety affects our breathing
Obviously breathing is something we do automatically – we don’t have to constantly think about it to keep doing it. However, we do have some conscious control over our the rate and manner of our breathing. And we can get into good or bad habits of breathing, due to our physical or emotional experiences.
For those of us who tend to be anxious, then there’s a good chance we’re generally breathing too quickly and/or too shallowly. Habitually breathing like this can even lead to hyperventilation or ‘overbreathing’ – when we breathe far too rapidly or deeply and start to feel short of breath.
Hyperventilation on its own can induce anxiety. Or it can come about as a result of anxiety. And it can be a vicious cycle – the faster you breathe, the more you feel panicky, the faster you breathe, and so on… Whatever the cause, hyperventilation is responsible for some of the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks, such as rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, shakiness, difficulty swallowing or feeling like you’re choking. (Many of these symptoms result from the lower levels of carbon dioxide in your blood which hyperventilation causes.)
Even if you don’t ever hyperventilate, shallow and quick breathing will not help your tension, stress and anxiety levels.
How slow breathing can help anxiety
Slow breathing can help anxiety very directly and very quickly. Breathing slowly can almost immediately slow your heart rate – which will help you feel calmer. Breathing slowly also stimulates the nervous system in a way that calms our nerves, and ensures they are getting sufficient oxygen. Also, if you’re hyperventilating then deliberately slowing down your breathing will stop this.
According to Alice Boyes, PhD, from Psychology Today, “The effect on anxiety is almost instant. Because calm breathing is a physiological strategy, this approach is also virtually universally effective for getting anxiety relief. It’s hard to go wrong with it!”
Incidentally, slow breathing also very quickly lowers your blood pressure. It has multiple benefits!
Slow breathing for social anxiety
If you get anxious before or during certain social situations, then do some slow breathing before you enter a situation you’re nervous about. It can help you stay calm(er) and feel more in control. Once you get more used to slow breathing, you’ll be able to do it anywhere as soon as you start to feel anxious.
Slow breathing for panic attacks
Breathing too quickly, or ‘overbreathing’ can be a sign of a panic attack coming, if you’re prone to these. So do some slow breathing as soon as you notice yourself doing this. In fact, make yourself breathe more slowly as soon as you’re aware of becoming anxious in any way. You can then prevent the panic attack from fully developing. As always, this will take some practice. So if slow breathing doesn’t help right away, or if you find it hard to breathe slowly at all, practice at home when you’re feeling calm. There’s more details on this below.
How do I do slow breathing for anxiety?
This is one of the few things that really is as simple as it sounds. Don’t worry about deep breathing. Don’t worry about whether you’re using your diaphragm effectively. Just focus on breathing… more… slowly.
It can be particularly effective to focus mainly on breathing out: take longer to breathe out, and then your in-breath will naturally lengthen itself too.
According to Alice Boyes, PhD, “Slow breathing is one of the best breathing techniques for panic attacks because it helps slow your heart rate, and naturally calms all of the body systems involved in your body’s fight/flight/freeze response (what produces the panic attack).”
How slowly do I need to breathe to reduce anxiety?
Generally most people most of the time are breathing about 15-20 times a minute (in this case, a “breath” being one in-breath and one out-breath). At this pace, only about 60% of the air in our lungs is exchanged with each breath. (You might at this point try counting your breaths to see how fast you breathe – I certainly did as soon as I read this statistic. However, be aware that the minute you focus on it, you’ll probably start breathing more slowly than usual!)
However, if you can breathe at a rate of 10-12 breaths per minute, then much more air in your lungs can be exchanged. This means your body is getting more oxygen, and also being more relaxed. And with practice, you can learn to breathe even more slowly than that too, for more benefit.
Note: Deep breathing, and learning to use your diaphragm more when you breathe, is a valuable skill and will also help with anxiety. However, some people can find this stressful and it’s a bit more difficult to do initially. By focusing simply on slow breathing, you can find quick and easy anxiety relief. And the more you do it, the more your breathing is likely to naturally deepen anyway.
Monitoring how it works
If you want to actually see directly how slow breathing can lower your heart rate, then you can download various apps to a smartphone to track your heart rate. Or be old-school and take your own pulse (e.g., by placing two fingers on the inside of your wrist, to the left of the main tendon). One thing to keep in mind is that your heart rate speeds up a little when you breathe in and slows when you breathe out, so you will see some variability.
Practising slow breathing regularly and why this is important
Regularly practicing slow breathing is also key. If you make a few minutes – say, about quarter of an hour – to breathe slowly each day, then you get used to doing it and it becomes second nature. This has several important benefits.
Firstly, doing slow breathing for a sustained period (e.g., at least fifteen minutes) allows you to more deeply relax and get more mental and physical benefit from it.
Secondly, by practicing slow breathing regularly, you’re likely to find that your breathing in general slows down and becomes deeper. This is not only good for you physically but it can help take the edge off chronic stress and anxiety.
Thirdly, once slow breathing comes naturally to you, you’ll be able to do it more easily in situations of intense anxiety or stress. And thus calm yourself down quickly and effectively. Being able to control your anxiety better will in turn will give you more confidence in anxiety-inducing situations. And so on…. A virtuous cycle!
Extra benefits of doing slow breathing to music
Listening to music in itself can be relaxing and help relieve anxiety and stress. Clinical studies have found that listening to music can reduce stress through affecting the nervous system and hormonal systems in the body. And studies of anxiety in many different contexts have found that listening to music can decrease anxiety, even in highly stressful situations like being in intensive care in a hospital!
So, next time you’re settling down to do your slow breathing, try putting on a piece of music that you find relaxing or soothing. See if that helps you relax more deeply. It might also help you maintain a steady breathing pace as well.
Slow breathing exercises for anxiety
What can be tricky with slow breathing practice is keeping your breathing slow for fifteen minutes. As with meditation or focusing on any very simple task, it can be difficult to keep your mind from wandering and your breath from speeding up again.
Guided slow breathing
These guided slow breathing tracks have breathing prompts which you can breathe along in time to, to keep your breathing at a certain rate. There are different sets of tracks for different rates of breathing (breaths per minute).
Each set of tracks also comes with different kinds of background music. As mentioned above, listening to music itself can alleviate anxiety. There are also tracks with just the breathing prompts and no music. This enables you to play your own background music, or to follow the prompts without any music at all.
These guided slow breathing tracks are available to buy as a set of digital downloads (mp3 files) which you can start using right away. Physical CDs are also now available. Click here for more information: Breathe-Slow guided slow breathing
A few more wee tips
When you’re first practising slow breathing, you might find it easier to lie down. Or you may prefer sitting or standing. Do whatever makes you feel the most relaxed. If you start off practising lying down, then once you get more used to it, practice sitting and standing. That way you’ll be ready to do it in real-life situations, when you’re not able to lie down.
Another useful thing you can do while breathing slowly, is to mentally scan your body to see where you’re tense. Most of us have tense shoulders for example. And the face (especially the lips and jaw) often holds a lot of tension. Find the tensest spots and each time you breathe out, release the tension in those areas.
And one last tip is to smile! Smiling releases tension in your face and also stimulates your body to produce endorphins – hormones which cheer you up and which help relax you. So even if you’re not feeling happy, smile anyway as you breathe slowly and it will physiologically have an effect.
Other things you can do to relieve anxiety
There are obviously many other breathing techniques which can help with stress and anxiety, if you want to look into it further. Meditation will also help. Yoga is beneficial for many people, and involves a practical focus on breathing.
Physical exercise is another good way to better regulate your breathing, as being more physically active makes you breathe more deeply and slowly. Don’t overdo it – a good brisk walk can be a good start. Or a run if you’re already quite fit. Or go out dancing. Exercise is particularly good if you find focusing on your breathing tends to makes you more anxious. Or if you’re just more drawn to active practical activities.
Slow breathing exercises for anxiety: references and more information