3 breathing techniques for anxiety

Breathing techniques for anxiety can be extremely useful in helping to settle the nervous system, particularly in acute situations when you feel like you are going to have an anxiety or panic attack. If used regularly though, they can be useful in the long term too, encouraging a more settled state over time.

First of all, it’s important to make sure that you are breathing properly. Anxious people often carry a lot of tension in the stomach area and this means that they tend to breathe only shallowly, just into the top of their lungs. They often have difficulty letting go of this tension in the stomach muscles.

Not surprisingly, a large proportion of people experiencing problems with anxiety have never learnt how to take a proper full breath.   When asked to take a deep breath they will often fill out their chests and raise their shoulders but their stomachs are sucked inwards.  This is symptomatic of someone who has developed the habit of shallow breathing and/or hyperventilation – both of which can make you more susceptible to feelings of anxiety. So, here’s a breathing technique that will help you learn to breathe in a way that’s going to be most beneficial for you.

Breathing techniques for anxiety : 1 - Breathing into the Stomach

  1. Lie down on your back, either on the floor or on a bed, with feet slightly apart and turned out. In this position it is easier to feel the flow of breath into each part of the lungs.  (If you prefer to sit in a chair make sure that you are sitting comfortably upright with your feet firmly grounded on the floor.)
  2. Place your hands on the area just below your ribs, elbows resting on the floor. 
  3. Just lie there for a few moments noticing your natural breath.  Don’t try to change your breathing in any way – just observe it.
  4. Notice whether or not your hands are pushed up by your stomach as you breathe in and sink down again as you breathe out.  
  5. If your hands are not moving out with each in breath see if you can direct the air further down into your lungs, keeping the shoulders still.
  6. Remember, your stomach area should be gently inflating like a balloon filling with air as you breathe in, and deflating as you breathe out.  Your shoulders should not move when you breathe.
  7. Now count as you breathe in and out.  Very gently and slowly adjust your breathing until your out breath is about twice as long as your in breath.  So for instance if you count up to three on the inhalation, exhale to the count of five or six.  Don’t force this.  Just let go more and more on the exhalation until it is a long slow out breath.
  8. Stay with this practice until you are familiar with how it feels to breathe into the lower part of your lungs (feels like the stomach area) and can do so easily.
  9. Check throughout the day to see where you are breathing and consciously develop the habit of breathing into the stomach and breathing out with a longer and slower breath than when you breathe in.

Breathing techniques for anxiety - 2 : Humming bee (bhramari) breath

This breathing technique is used in yogic tradition to calm, relieve stress, anger, anxiety and insomnia. It would be interesting if some research was carried out on subjects using this technique as the sound made is felt in the centre of the head where the amygdala is located (the amygdala being the part of the brain most involved in the flight or fight response). It is possible that its soothing effect occurs through directly affecting this part of the brain.

  1. Sitting comfortably upright, use your index or middle fingers to plug your ears by pressing on the little flap in front of your ear.
  2. Take a deep breath through the nose and then exhale slowly and steadily whilst making a deep, soft humming sound, with your attention on the centre of the head.
  3. Perform 5-10 times initially and, if you wish, increase over time to 10 to 15 minutes. It may be practised even longer in acute anxiety/panic.

Next page – Breathing techniques for anxiety – 3 : Alternate nostril breathing (coming soon)

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