When you're anxious, your breathing can get out of control. Whether it's due to generalised anxiety or a panic attack, one of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety is shortness of breath.

Now we are talking about the breath, I invite you to attend to yours. Do you breathe fast or slowly? Do you breathe through your mouth or nose? Do you breathe from the upper or lower part of your chest?

To be honest, I find it amazing how unaware I am of my own breath most of the time. However, in recent years I have become more aware and practised a variety of techniques, such as breathing exercises and pranayama breathing, and reaped the rewards of a relaxed mental state.


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Why Use Breathing Exercises For Anxiety

There are two main reasons why we use breathing exercises for anxiety:

  1. You can control your breath. It’s like our internal control system and affects the heart, muscles, brain and even our digestive system.
  2. The breath directly influences our automatic nervous system. And that’s how it can help us calm down.

You will remember reading about the fight or flight response before, it is commonly used when explaining anxiety. Well, in moments where our body is in fight or flight mode, our breathing is often intensified. Breathing in so rapidly gives your body more oxygen (O2) than it actually needs, while carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in your body go down significantly. The result can be dizziness, a lump in your throat, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet and even nausea and confusion (you may recognise some of these as physical symptoms of anxiety or panic).

In other words, this way of breathing is counterproductive (at least when there isn't a lion in front of you).

So, being able to control your breath, through techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, gives you the ability to 'flip the switch' on the fight or flight mode and therefore profoundly reduce stress and anxiety.

How To Breathe Correctly

You may remember reading about some breathing exercises before and just as they did then, these five quick points are important to bear in mind when practising breathing exercises (look at the picture for inspiration):

  1. Breathe in through the nose. By doing so you automatically decrease the amount of oxygen you take in. An added bonus is that this also cleans out unfiltered, polluted air.
  2. Breathe with your diaphragm. Which is a thin muscle at the base of your chest. Your breathing should feel nice and deep with the air coming in through your nose all the way down to your belly.
  3. Breathe out through your mouth. Especially if you find it hard to breathe out for longer periods of time. A useful tip here is to purse your lips, as this restricts the airflow.
  4. Breathe slower. The faster you breathe in and out, the more work you give your body. Breathing slower helps reduce stress and anxiety.
  5. Breathe rhythmically. Rhythms make life more efficient and easy. Most things in nature have their own rhythm.

Simple Breathing Exercise For Anxiety

If you follow the instructions above, you will be practising diaphragmatic breathing, which is basically just another way to term how we are meant to be breathing already.

Here is a useful video that you can follow in order to practice with an established rhythm, the 4 - 7 - 8 method. It is quite intuitive, you breathe in for 4 seconds, you hold for 7 and then you breathe out for 8.


If you are interested in other anxiety reducing techniques, you might want to check out the rest of the blog, or try the Pocketcoach app.

Your breath is one of the most powerful tools you have. You just have to learn how to use it :)