As anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety disorder can attest, the pervasive feeling is a daily companion — and a seriously unwelcome one. Everyone's coping strategies are different and while many people benefit from a combination of therapy and medication, that doesn't make the illness disappear. However, there are ways to ease the symptoms: many people benefit from daily exercise, reducing caffeine intake, journaling, and getting outside. Of course, sometimes we're at work or somewhere else where we can't suddenly duck out for a jog or a journaling session. Luckily, there are several breathing techniques that can ease anxiety — and they can be done wherever we are.
A hallmark symptom of anxiety and panic disorders is struggling to breathe when we're in a bad place. Naturally, this amps up our anxiety even more — I've had moments where my breathing was so constricted, I genuinely believed that I was having a heart attack. Research has shown that the "fight-or-flight response" is overactive and easily triggered amongst people with anxiety and panic disorders and this could be why we have a hard time breathing during a rough episode. Our breaths become shallow, fast-paced, and restrictive. So, if you're someone who experiences this symptom, there are a number of breathing exercises that can help — especially if you feel an episode coming on and you engage in these techniques as quickly as possible.
1. Deep Breathing Exercise
Katharina Star, PhD suggests a seven-step deep breathing exercise on VeryWell.com that will only take up a few minutes of your time.
- Get in a comfortable position and make sure your spine is straight. Sitting upright in a chair or lying on your back are the best positions.
- Close your eyes.
- Notice your breaths. Pay attention to whether or not you're breathing in and out from the chest, and the speed of your breath.
- Relax your shoulders and begin to breathe intentionally. Inhale through your nose, using a slow, deep breath. Notice your center — does it expand once you fill your body with breath? Exhale through your mouth.
- Continue to do this for five to 10 more cycles of breath, focusing on your breathing.
- Pay attention to your entire body and which areas feel extremely tense. As you exhale, imagine that your body is releasing stress and tension.
- As you prepare to stop, take a few moments to assess how you're feeling physically and emotionally.
Star also suggests that individuals with anxiety and panic disorders practice this exercise at times when you're not feeling especially anxious. It will make the deep breathing exercise easier when you do end up in the throes of a panic attack or an extremely anxious episode.
2. Natural Breathing (aka Abdominal Breathing)
Natural breathing is how you should breathe all day long — so this is one you can practice all the time.
- Slowly inhale a normal amount of air through your nose — your stomach will expand, which means that the air is filling your lower lungs.
- Continue this breathing pattern and concentrate on filling only the lower lungs.
This is the exact opposite breathing pattern compared to how we breathe during moments of panic and anxiety (rapid and shallow breaths into the upper lungs). So, if you make a conscious effort to breathe this way all day, it'll be easier to focus on this tactic during times of extreme anxiety.
3. Breathing-Focused Meditation
Meditation is known for helping with anxiety because it quiets our overactive brains and and allows us to focus on the present — many people with anxiety fixate on the past or future, so this is an important way to be more "present" in our daily lives.
Because of this, breath-focused meditation is a basic, but extremely important, way to combat anxiety. It's pretty simple and you can see benefits from practicing it just once a day. Get into a comfortable position and begin focusing on your breaths. When your mind inevitably wanders, try to refocus to the sensation of breathing. Focusing just on your breath is a great way to begin feeling more "present" in other areas of your life, which will potentially reduce certain anxieties.
This breathing technique takes less than 10 minutes, so you can use it at home or step away from desk at lunchtime if you feel your anxiety amping up.
4. Slow Breathing
Many people with anxiety take quick, shallow breaths, which can lead to shortness of breath and hyperventilation during especially anxious moments. Slow breathing (as explained by Anxiety Treatment Australia) is an effective way to ease anxiety and prevent a panic attack — so if you're in a triggering situation, you may want to try the slow breathing technique as quickly as possible. If your anxiety or panic is related to social situations, focus on slowing your breathing before you head into a stressful situation.
When you first attempt this exercise, it's best to lie down flat on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Hold your breath and count to 10, then breathe out and focus on relaxing. Next, inhale slowly through your nose for three seconds. The hand on your chest should stay still; you should feel a rise with the hand on your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth for three seconds and you should feel the hand on your abdomen drop as you exhale.
Spend one minute continuing the six-second cycle, then hold your breath again for 10 seconds. Repeat this process for five minutes. Once you're comfortable doing this lying down, begin to practice slow breathing when you're in a sitting or standing position — that way you can begin to employ it when you're in public. Try to spend 20 minutes each day practicing slow breathing. This doesn't have to be 20 minutes at a time — you can break up your practice times depending on your schedule.
All these techniques take practice, so try to carve out at least a few minutes each day to work on them. They'll allow you to stay present and steady your breathing when an intense moment of anxiety does occur.