Anxiety is the body’s normal response to stress. It is a part of the “fight-or-flight” response that happens when someone faces a real or perceived physical or emotional threat. Anxiety can be useful because it makes sure that people are alert and aware in the face of danger. For some people, however, it can disrupt their everyday life. Sometimes, anxiety can become overwhelming, which may cause unease, distress, or dread. When this is the case, doctors tend to recommend trying breathing exercises.

Breathing is an automatic function of the body that is controlled by the respiratory center of the brain. When we feel stressed, our breathing rate and pattern change as part of the ‘fight-or-flight response. Fortunately, we also have the power to deliberately change our own breathing. Scientific studies have shown that controlling your breath can help to manage stress and stress-related conditions. Breath control is also used in practices such as yoga, tai chi, and some forms of meditation. Many people use their breathing to help promote relaxation and reduce stress.

Breathing and stress
The primary role of breathing is to absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide through the movement of the lungs. Muscles that control the movement of the lungs are the diaphragm (a sheet of muscle underneath the lungs) and the muscles between the ribs. When a person is under stress, their breathing pattern changes. Typically, anxious person takes small, shallow breaths, using their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of their lungs. This style of breathing disrupts the balance of gases in the body. Shallow over-breathing, or hyperventilation, can prolong feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worse. Controlling your breathing can help to improve some of these symptoms.

Relaxation response
When a person is relaxed, they breathe through their nose in a slow, even, and gentle way. Deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern seems to calm the nervous system that controls the body’s involuntary functions. Controlled breathing can cause physiological changes that include:

  • Lowered blood pressure and heart rate
  • Reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood
  • Reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue
  • Balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Increased physical energy
  • Increased feelings of calm and well-being.

There are different breathing techniques to bring about relaxation.
In essence, the general aim is to shift from upper chest breathing to abdominal breathing. You will need a quiet, relaxed environment where you won’t be disturbed for 10 to 20 minutes. Set an alarm if you don’t want to lose track of time.

Here are a few techniques you can practice daily for your relaxation:

Abdominal breathing

  • Sit comfortably and raise your ribcage to expand your chest.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  • Take notice of how your upper chest and abdomen are moving while you breathe.
  • Concentrate on your breath and try to gently breathe in and out through the nose.
  • Your upper chest and stomach should be still, allowing the diaphragm to work more efficiently with your abdomen rather than your chest.
  • With each breath, allow any tension in your body to slip away. Once you are breathing slowly and with your abdomen, sit quietly and enjoy the sensation of physical relaxation.

4-7-8 breathing
This technique is a quick and simple way for a person to relax anywhere. A person should sit down with their back straight and the tip of their tongue on the back of their upper front teeth.

  • Breathe out through the mouth, making a whooshing sound.
  • Close the mouth and count to 4 while breathing in through the nose.
  • Count to 7 while holding your breath.
  • Count to 8 while breathing out through the mouth, making a whooshing sound.
  • Inhale, then repeat three times.

Diaphragmatic breathing

  • Place one hand on the tummy and the other on the upper chest.
  • Breathe in through the nose, focusing on the tummy rising.
  • Breathe out through pursed lips, focusing on the tummy lowering.
  • Repeat the cycle.

Breathing is a necessity of life that usually occurs without much thought. When you breathe in, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a waste product that’s carried back through your body and exhaled. Improper breathing can upset the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange and contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, fatigue, and other physical and emotional disturbances. The next time you’re feeling anxious, there are a variety of anxiety breathing exercises to try. Learn how to use breathing exercises to help relieve feelings of anxiety and stress.