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Do Breathing Techniques Really Help with Anxiety?

Published by Courtney Hall

“Take a deep breath.” This is probably a phrase you’ve heard directed at someone who’s angry, overwhelmed, shocked, or, in laymen’s terms, “freaking out.” While it may come across as simple advice, utilizing mindful and properly executed breathing techniques have been scientifically proven to help to ease your anxiety. Here are three techniques to try if you’re feeling anxious or if you just want to unwind:

Belly Breathing

Also called diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing is a technique that stabilizes the diaphragm so that you breathe at a steady rate. This can help with the increased and almost uncontrollable breathing rate we sometimes experience from anxiety. To perform this exercise, lay on your back with one pillow to support your head and another to support your knees. Place one hand on your chest and the other just below your rib cage, where the diaphragm is located. Inhale through your nose, letting your stomach expand while keeping your hands as still as possible. Exhale through pursed lips, letting your abdominal muscles fully contract. Practice this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes at a time until you feel relaxed and your breathing rate feels normal again.

Meditative Breathing

The word “mindful” is often used to describe breathing techniques. Mindfulness is what meditative breathing is all about. It’s a technique in which you focus on the act of breathing itself, by taking long inhales of about 3 seconds and even longer exhales of 4 seconds or more (whatever feels most comfortable for you). Focusing on your breathing allows you to combat anxiety by directing your attention inward and grounding you in the moment. This is best performed with closed eyes to avoid any visual distractions. The great thing about meditative breathing is that you can do it anywhere in no particular positions – at your work desk, in bed at night, while you shop – it doesn’t matter. 

Alternate Nostril Breathing

This is a much more involved, yogic breathing technique that may help to reduce anxiety and lower your heart rate. It can also promote a sense of mental balance, especially if you are mindful of doing the technique as it’s meant to be done. Start by sitting on the floor on a blanket, pillow or yoga mat with your legs crossed or in “Sukhasana” position in yoga terms. The technique is best explained in a step-by-step list:

  • Press the right thumb onto the right nostril to close it
  • Inhale slowly through the left nostril
  • Before exhaling, place right ring finger onto left nostril
  • Exhale through the right nostril, then inhale through the right nostril
  • Press your right thumb onto right nostril to close it
  • Exhale through the left nostril, then inhale through the left nostril
  • Place your ring finger onto left nostril and repeat the process a few times

The goal is to make sure each breathe through the nostril “starts” on an exhale besides the very first inhale. Do not attempt if you have a stuffy nose or any respiratory issues.

The best thing about these techniques is that they’re free to do, require no anxiety medications and are fairly simple to execute. The next time someone tells you to “take a deep breath,” you’ll know exactly what to do.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, it’s essential to know how to respond and what resources are available. Read this crisis resource guide to know how to better help people you know and love.

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