Between the pandemic, the news cycle, and tending to your responsibilities while isolated at home, stress levels may be high. Though it might be more difficult these days to release that tension by seeing loved ones, sweating it out at the gym, or going to your therapist’s office, there are expert-backed breathing exercises to calm anxiety that can bring relief.
Ever notice that when you’re anxious, your breathing becomes shallow or irregular? That’s because your body circulates hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help you respond to a perceived threat — that’s fight-or-flight mode, says psychotherapist Oludara Adeeyo, A.S.W. Sometimes this is helpful, like if a bear is charging you and you need to run away fast. But when the threat isn’t so life-or-death, like feeling overwhelmed at work or upset after a night of doomscrolling, that stress response can leave you wired.
Enter deep breathing. It sounds simple, but controlling your breath and bringing it back to a regular pattern signals your nervous system to fall back into balance, according to 2017 research published in the journal Breathe. And returning your nervous system to its more relaxed state helps your brain chill out and get back in touch with reality so you can calmly deal with the problem at hand, says Adeeyo.
Your breath is a powerful tool — and it’s completely free. Here, meditation experts and therapists share their favorite breathing exercises to calm anxiety and help you feel more at ease.
1. Keep It Simple
The easiest method? Simply focusing on taking deep breaths can help ease day-to-day stress, says Adeeyo. If you ever feel overwhelmed or busy, deep breathing can help you re-center yourself without taking too much time away from whatever it is that’s keeping you occupied. “It brings us to the present moment and takes us out of what we were doing before,” says Steph Strauss, meditation and movement facilitator. “You’re no longer thinking about what you have to do next; you’re grounded.”
Strauss recommends taking three deep breaths whenever you switch from one task to another or when transitioning into different phases of your day in order to bring moments of calm. If you have more time, spend a minute or two breathing deeply to really hammer home the message to your nervous system that everything is OK.
2. Sigh It Out
Sometimes physical release helps facilitate emotional release (hence the saying “sigh of relief”). So, instead of just exhaling while you deep breathe, make that exhale audible, suggests Adeeyo. Sigh, flutter your lips, or groan — no matter the sound, adding some noise to your breath can literally relieve tension you’re holding in your body, according to 2016 research published in the journal Physiology & Behavior.
3. Balanced Breath
Ever get stressed when you’re feeling scatterbrained and work starts to pile on? Luckily, breath can help with that too, says Strauss. She recommends matching the length of your inhales to that of your exhales to calm your mind and body. Pick a length of time that works best for you — anywhere from 2 to 7 counts — then inhale and exhale to that timing for as long as you want.
The counting gives your mind something to focus on in the present moment instead of struggling to concentrate on work, according to Strauss. That moment of mindfulness paired with the nervous-system soothing deep breaths will calm you physically and give you a break mentally so you can return to the task at hand with a clearer head and more relaxed body.
4. Longer Exhales
Take your breath control to the next level by exhaling for longer than you inhale, says Strauss. She recommends inhaling through your nose for 3 counts, then exhaling out your nose for 6 counts until you feel relaxed, though you can adjust the timing based on what works best for you. This controlled breath cycle taps into your parasympathetic nervous system to send out signals that you’re in a restful state, which allows your body to relax.
5. The 4-7-8 Breath
Start with a 4-second inhalation through the nose, hold the breath for 7 seconds, then exhale for 8 seconds. When you exhale, Werner recommends making your mouth small like you’re whistling or holding a straw in your lips. The exhalation should be strong enough that you feel increased pressure in your chest, but not so strong that it feels forced, he adds — think blowing on hot soup versus birthday candles. Repeat this exercise for five cycles or until you feel relaxed.
6. Lion’s Breath
While the image of a lion might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of tranquility, this yogic breathing technique can help revitalize you when you’re in a slump. Strauss says it’s an awakening breath, which makes it the perfect exercise if you need a burst of energy to get through a particularly crappy day or to clear anxious thoughts.
Start by sitting in an upright position with a long, neutral spine. Inhale deeply through your nose, then open your mouth and stick our your tongue as you forcefully exhale — maybe even make a guttural “ha” noise while you do. This powerful breath can release tension and tightness in your throat, according to Strauss. And not only does it provide that physical relief, but research shows breathing techniques like this can be an effective way to ease stress and anxiety: out with the old and in with the new, so to speak.
Added bonus? Though lion’s breath may look and feel ridiculous, committing to it can help you shed self-consciousness so you can confidently tackle whatever is worrying you.
7. Breath Of Fire
Not all calming breath is deep and slow, says Werner. Enter the breath of fire, a rapid, shallow breathing practice frequently used in Kundalini yoga exercises. Breath of fire is fast but smooth and controlled, he says, which can trigger your rest-and-digest state and reduce stress, according to 2013 research published in the International Journal of Yoga. Science also shows that quick breaths like these can boost brain functions like memory and attention, making it an excellent technique to help you feel better in body and mind.
For this exercise, do 15 quick breaths of fire (about 2 or 3 breaths per second), followed by a deep inhale with a 5-second hold and open-mouth exhale. Repeat the cycle five times. It should feel like you’re moving the air from your upper chest rather than deep in your lungs, he explains.
Keep in mind that even though it’s quick, breath of fire is different from hyperventilation, says Werner. Hyperventilation is rapid, deep, effortful, and uncontrollable breath, in contrast to the shallow and controlled breathing in this exercise.
Russo, M. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709795/
Sengupta, P. (2012). Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review. International Journal of Preventative Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415184/
Sharma, V. (2014). Effect of Fast and Slow Pranayama Practice on Cognitive Functions In Healthy Volunteers. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3939514/
Sharma, V. (2013). Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students. International Journal of Yoga, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3734635/
Vlemincx, E. (2016). A sigh of relief or a sigh to relieve: The psychological and physiological relief effect of deep breaths. Physiology & Behavior, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27404329/
Oludara Adeeyo, A.S.W., a psychiatric social worker and psychotherapist in Los Angeles
Steph Strauss, a meditation and movement facilitator and yoga instructor in Chicago