If you’re someone who suffers from anxiety–or just a human trying to survive the year 2020–hearing someone tell you to “just breathe” can feel a little dismissive if not infuriating. But there’s a lot of wisdom in those two little words.
Because while anxiety can often leave us breathless, improper breathing can also trigger anxiety and panic attacks. And we can look at that as either a vicious cycle, or an opportunity. Taking the time to learn and implement helpful deep breathing exercises can go a long way in reducing our anxiety–in the moment and overall.
“Deep breathing also increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness,” according to The American Institute of Stress.
So let’s look at a seven types of breathing you can add to your stress-management bag of tricks.
1. Boxed Breathing
Let’s start simply. Boxed breathing, or equal breathing, works by inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling for an equal count.
Get yourself in a relaxed position, either seated or lying down, and inhale for a count of four. Then hold your breath for a count of four, and exhale for a count of four.
Continue this for several repetitions, or for as long as you need to find your center.
2. Four-Seven-Eight Breathing
Four-seven-eight breathing is very similar to boxed breathing, but the counts are not equal to each other. I’ve found this one to be especially helpful in my own experience. There’s something about the concentration on the varying numbers that’s distracting–something that can be very helpful when in the midst of a panic attack.
After exhaling the air out of your lungs, take a deep four second inhale, and then hold your breath for a count of seven. Then slowly exhale for a count of eight, and begin the repetition again. Do this for at least four full reps, if not longer.
3. Belly Breathing
When you’re mired in anxiety, it’s sometimes hard to notice that your breathing becomes shallow. Belly breathing combats that quickly and effectively. It allows us to take deeper, more fulfilling breaths. And that in turn can slow your heart rate and stabilize your blood pressure.
Sit somewhere comfortable, and focus on deeply inhaling into your abdomen first, and then your chest. If it’s helpful, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest, so you can feel the order in which they rise. Then on the exhale, use the hand on your belly to push all the air out.
Repeat the process, aiming to breath deeper with each inhale.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Like four-seven-eight breathing, alternate nostril breathing forces you to focus on something other than your own anxious thoughts for a time.
Sit cross-legged on the floor, rest your left hand on your left knee, then bring your right thumb up to close your right nostril. Fully exhale and inhale through your left nostril, and then switch. Place your right hand on your right knee, bring your left thumb up to close your left nostril, and then fully exhale and inhale through your right nostril.
The constant movement and counting will keep you distracted, and can become quite meditative. This is a favorite breath work practice of yogis.
5. Active Breathing
Active breathing is a good choice for those suffering from severe or acute anxiety, and it pairs breath work with physical activity, such as climbing stairs.
For instance, you might inhale through your nose for three counts as you climb three stairs, then exhale through your mouth for three counts as you climb the next three stairs. This could also be paired with simple strides on a brisk walk, or any other exercise where you can pair breathing counts with deliberate movement.
6. Ocean Breathing
Ocean breathing is an effective visualization exercise. “Imagine how the ocean waves flow into the shore, never stopping and always flowing in and out,” advises meditation expert Josephine Atluri.
Rather than some exercises which emphasize holding your breath, in ocean breathing your inhales and exhales seamlessly flow together with no pause in between. Repeat as many times as you wish while visualizing yourself as the waves moving in and out from shore.
7. Breathing Aids
Lastly, there are loads of breathing aids online, from guided meditations, to soothing .gif animation that can quiet your mind and help you regulate your breathing. You can also search for meditation and breathing apps like iBreathe and Breethe.
So next time you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, and you can’t seem to shut off your own brain, slow down for a few moments and try one of the exercises above. The good news is once you’ve got them down, you’ll never be unprepared when your old friend anxiety comes calling.