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9 breathing exercises that help you cope with anxiety

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/sportive-woman-with-bicycle-resting-on-countryside-road-in-sunlight-3771836/

Feeling stressed out, worried or overwhelmed today? You’re not alone.

Many people struggle with anxiety on a daily basis and while there are several physical signs of anxiety, one of the most distressing can be a shortness of breath or changes to the regularity of breathing.

While stress and anxiety can make it feel harder to breathe – your breath can actually hold the key to helping you feel better, and keeping you in the moment.

Clare Gridley, psychotherapist at independent mental health care provider the Priory Group, has revealed nine science-backed breathing exercises that can help you to develop a healthier way of breathing, bringing a whole host of benefits and improving your overall wellbeing.

Speaking on behalf of free global mental health app My Possible Self, Clare explains: ‘For many it can be daunting knowing where to start when it comes to breathing exercises, but it doesn’t need to be and the benefits can be profound.

‘When you feel the signs of anxiety building up inside, there are tailored techniques you can adopt that will help to get your breathing back to normal.’

Here are nine simple breathing techniques that can be tried at work or at home to help keep anxiety symptoms under control:

Simple breathing techniques for anxiety

1. Alternate nostril breathing

‘Alternate nostril breathing, also known as nadi shodhana, is a simple breathing technique that is often used to calm any anxieties before yoga or a meditation session,’ says Claire.

‘To practice alternate nostril breathing, assume a seated position with good posture that opens up your chest.

‘Next, take the index and middle fingers of your right hand and rest them next to each other between your eyebrows (you can do this with your left hand if you feel more comfortable).’

Now you’re ready to practise alternate nostril breathing:

  1. Use your thumb to close the right-hand nostril and inhale slowly through only your left nostril.
  2. Pinch your nose closed by bringing your ring finger to your left nostril. Temporarily hold your breath.
  3. Open up your right nostril by removing your thumb and exhale.
  4. Hold for a moment before inhaling again through the right nostril.
  5. Pinch your nose closed again and hold your breath for a moment.
  6. Now open up the left nostril and exhale. Again, wait a moment before you inhale.

That is one cycle of alternate nostril breathing, which can take anywhere up to a minute.

Claire says you should repeat the process for about 10 minutes or until you feel suitably calmed.

2. Lion’s breath

Like alternate nostril breathing, Claire says lion’s breath is a yogic breathing (or pranayama) exercise that’s predominantly done during a yoga session.

‘However, its ability to alleviate stress makes it useful for anyone looking for a breathing exercise to calm themselves,’ she says.

‘This one is done by sitting, either in a chair or on the floor, with your hands on your knees or flat on the floor.’

  1. Spread your fingers wide and inhale through your nose.
  2. Open your mouth and stick out your tongue. Stretch it down to your chin.
  3. Do a big exhale, pushing the air across your tongue and making a ‘ha’ sound from the depths of your abdomen.
  4. Take a short break by breathing normally before starting again.

Repeat the cycle several times to see the benefits.

Yogic breathing practices like lion’s breath are proven to work effectively as a stress reducer.

3. 4-4-4 breathing

Claire says 4-4-4 breathing, also commonly known as box breathing, is one of the easier breathing techniques you can practice to help you calm anxiety.

‘It’s perfect as a quick fix for reducing stress by distracting your mind and body,’ she adds.

‘In fact, if you’ve taken a minute to breathe deeply then you’ve likely come close to box breathing.’

  1. Take a breath then exhale on the count of four.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Inhale to the count of four.
  4. Hold your breath for four seconds.

A few rounds of box breathing should help to keep a raised heart rate down and distract you from the anxiety-inducing situation around you.

Sitting down with an extended spine and open chest is the best way to practice this technique, but it can be done stood up too.

4. 4-7-8 Breathing

‘Also known as relaxing breath, 4-7-8 breathing follows the same principles as 4-4-4 breathing,’ says Claire.

‘Get yourself in a seated position, either in a chair or cross-legged on the floor or your bed.’

  1. Inhale to the count of four.
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  3. Exhale to the count of eight.

Relaxing breath is the perfect pre-bedtime breathing technique, reducing feelings of tension and anxiety to help you get a better night’s sleep.

5. Pursed-lip breathing

For many breathing techniques, Claire says pursed lips can help to make your breathing more effective and purposeful.

‘Pursed lips also have a dedicated technique of their own,’ she says. ‘You can do this when sat down or when you’re active.’

  1. Take a breath in slowly through your nose for two seconds. Keep your mouth closed.
  2. Purse your lips, as if you were about to whistle or sip through a straw.
  3. Exhale through your mouth while counting to four.

‘This technique is especially good at slowing the pace of your breath and limiting the distress caused by shortness of breath.

‘Once you’ve mastered this technique, your breathing will be more efficient, helping your body do less work when breathing.’

6. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a breathing technique with plenty of research supporting its benefits.

‘Research published in Frontiers in Psychology says it can reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults,’ says Claire.

‘To practice it, take a seated position or lie down.’

  1. Place one hand on your chest and one just below your ribcage on your abdomen.
  2. Slowly breathe in through your nose, feeling the air move down to your abdomen.
  3. As you do, your belly will expand and push outwards but your chest should remain relatively still.
  4. Purse your lips and exhale slowly for a few seconds.
  5. Throughout, take note of how your stomach expands and contacts, but your chest makes only slight movements.

For maximum effect, repeat this cycle a few times.

7. Resonance breathing

Resonance breathing, or coherent breathing, is another great way to reduce anxiety, respond positively to stress and to bring about a more relaxed self.

Claire says: ‘To start resonance breathing, lie down flat and close your eyes.

  1. Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of six. Be careful not to fully inflate your lungs.
  2. Gently exhale for six seconds.
  3. Throughout the process (around 10 minutes), focus on your body and how it feels as the air passes in and out.

‘Evidence shows that resonance breathing can have positive effects on a wide range of anxiety, stress and mood related modifiers.

‘Research from Brigham Young University showed positive outcomes for heart rate variability, reduced blood pressure response to stress, and a more positive mood.’

8. Long exhaling

Claire says longer exhalations can help you to combat your fight-or-flight stress response and improve your heart rate variability – which over time can help us to deal better with stress.

‘This is what recent research (summarised by Psychology Today) in the industry has discovered,’ she says.

‘As a breathing technique, it means exhaling out for longer than you inhale.’

  1. Inhale for a short period, around 2-3 seconds.
  2. Pause at the top of the breath for a second.
  3. Exhale gently for double the time of your inhale, so around 4-6 seconds.
  4. Continue for at least five minutes and monitor your mood and feelings of anxiety for any improvements.

‘When we’re stressed, too many big inhalations can lead us to engage our fight-or-flight instincts and hyperventilate.

‘This technique, which can be done stood up, lying down or sitting, can help to keep those overwhelming feelings at bay.’

9. Teddy bear breathing

The technique with the cutest name, teddy bear breathing is very similar to diaphragmatic breathing – but adds a child’s toy into the exercise to engage younger people.

  1. Place one hand on your chest. Place a teddy bear or toy on your belly and hold it with your other hand.
  2. Slowly breathe in through your nose, feeling the air move down to your tummy.
  3. As you do, your belly will expand and push the bear outwards. Your chest should stay almost where it is.
  4. Purse your lips and exhale slowly for a few seconds.
  5. Throughout, take note of how the bear moves up and down with your belly, but your chest makes only slight movements.

‘You could try this one with your children,’ says Claire, ‘helping them to become more aware of their breathing and less worried about the world around them.’

My Possible Self is a free, NHS endorsed mental health app which provides holistic and engaging tools to support and improve mental wellbeing, and includes a guided ‘overcoming my anxiety’ series.

 


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