Anxiety can feel overwhelming, even if you are taking medication or managing it with lifestyle.
Breathing exercises can help manage anxiety in healthier ways.
Any type of focused breathing may be able to help calm your body down and decrease symptoms of anxiety, and there are lots of effective options you can try to find one that helps you best cope
In this article, I’ll talk about the causes, triggers, and symptoms of anxiety attacks, and offer a host of breathing exercises you can try when experiencing anxiety.
I’ll also tell you when to see a doctor.
Symptoms of Anxiety Attack
An anxiety attack is not an official medical term, however it can be experienced as sudden episode or onset of extreme worry, discomfort, tension, or fear.
Attacks can include physical symptoms like rapid heart rate, fast breathing, shortness of breath, feelings of panic, and the inability to sit still.
It can be frightening or overwhelming to feel like you can’t make your brain calm down.
Other symptoms of an anxiety attack can include:
- Feelings of panic, fear, or doom
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or heart palpitations
- Fast breathing or fast pulse
Causes and Triggers
Everyone experiences stress differently.
Symptoms of anxiety may happen when a person’s ability to process stress becomes impacted.
This may happen to people who already have other mental health conditions or who are dealing with higher levels of stress in everyday life.
Some potential causes and triggers for anxiety attacks are:
- Divorce and relationship changes
- Death of a loved one
- Changes or tension at work
- Caregiving for older relatives or for children
- Financial stress
- Heavy traffic
- Public speaking
- Medical results or treatments
- Global pandemic
- Natural disasters
Anxiety attacks may also be a symptom of other conditions, such as:
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Breathing Exercises For Anxiety
If you feel tense or are experiencing a sudden episode of anxiety, practicing deep breathing exercises can help your body restore its ability to regulate your “fight or flight” response.
There are many ways to practice breathing exercises.
Try any one of the following for relief, and consider making breathing exercises a regular part of your daily routine.
Check in & breath focus
This is a basic exercise to get you started with deep breathing.
- Lie down on your back with pillows beneath your head and your knees. You may also sit comfortably in a chair. Make sure that your head, neck, shoulders, and knees are relaxed.
- Put one hand under your ribs and one hand over your heart.
- Breathe in and breathe out through the nose. Pay attention to your stomach and chest move as you breathe.
- Focus on breathing in so that air goes deep into the lungs, moving the belly outward. Then focus on exhaling so that the belly is pulled back inward.
- Next, breathe so that your chest moves in and out. Focus on your chest moving outward with each inhale, and your chest moving inward with each exhale.
- By being able to isolate how and where you are inhaling and exhaling, you can learn to control how deeply you naturally breathe in and out.
Try focusing your attention while breathing on specific words or phrases, like “calm” or “safe.”
Breathing like this can be beneficial for any length of time.
Aim for at least 20 minutes each day of intentional deep breathing.
If that feels like too much to commit to, start with 5 minutes and work your way up.
By spending more time breathing out, you may be able to help activate the part of the nervous system that is responsible for calming the body down.
It is known as the parasympathetic nervous system, or PSNS.
When the body is stressed, you tend to take in breaths more quickly.
These shortened breaths do not take in as much oxygen.
By lengthening the exhale, you lengthen your breath, providing better oxygen supply to the brain.
This can help calm you down.
You can do this in any position, or even at your desk or in the car.
- Exhale first, deep and long.
- Relax and breathe in normally.
- Next, try to exhale longer than you did the first time. Try counting to an inhale of 4 seconds. Then exhale for 6 seconds.
- Repeat this process for 2-5 minutes throughout the day as needed.
This is also known as diaphragm breathing.
- Lay down on your back with a pillow under your head and knees. You can also sit comfortably in a chair, head and shoulders relaxed, knees folded or bent.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, around the belly button.
- Breathe in through the nose so that your abdomen fills and expands. Your chest should not move.
- Breathe out through your mouth, using your stomach muscles to push breathe out, while your chest slightly expands.
The modern stressful and fast-paced world we live in has made us speed up our breathing, but we should be normally inhaling and exhaling in a deep and relaxing way.
Practicing belly breathing regularly may help this type of breathing become the default way that you breathe.
This type of breathing is derived from a type of yoga breathing.
It refers to breathing in and out for the same amount of time.
You can be laying down, sitting, or standing.
Focus on relaxing the tension in your body while you breathe.
- Close your eyes. Breathe as you typically do several times, in and out.
- Next, slowly count to 4 as you breathe in through your nose.
- Breathe out while you slowly count to 4.
- Repeat this process for several minutes.
This is also called coherent breathing.
- Lay down and close your eyes.
- Close your mouth. Breathe in through your nose for 6 seconds.
- Breathe out for 6 seconds, slowly and gently.
- Repeat this process for 10 minutes. Be mindful of how your body feels as you do this. Do not tense your muscles, fists, or anywhere else as you focus on counting. Be as relaxed as possible.
Yogic pranayama breathing
Pranayama breathing may be a part of yoga flows, but can also be done on its own.
It supports calm and balance in the mind.
- Sit in a chair or on the floor. Make sure that you are sitting up straight, not slouching. Do not tense your neck or shoulders.
- Place your fingertips on your lower belly and try to focus on inhaling from this space.
- Next, move your fingertips to the spaces below your collarbone. Spread your fingers out widely. While you inhale, continue to spread your fingers and focus on breathing from this space. Make sure you stay as relaxed as possible.
- Be mindful of your back and posture while you breathe, focusing on the way that your spine lengthens as you breathe in and how it relaxes when you breathe out.
This is a more forceful type of breathing exercise.
- Kneel and cross your ankles so that you are resting on your legs. You can also sit with your legs crossed.
- Place your hands on your knees, stretching your arms and fingers as much as possible.
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Breathe out through your open mouth, with a vocal “ha” sound. Your mouth should be wide open and your tongue extended as far as it can go. Focus on your forehead or your nose while you exhale forcefully.
- When you breathe in, relax your face.
- Repeat 6 times. Change the position of your ankles when you are halfway done.
Teddy bear breath
This can be used for adults or children.
- Lay on your back. Place a hand on your chest. Place a teddy bear, stuffed animal, or rolled-up towel on your belly button.
- Close your eyes. Relax your whole body.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose. The teddy bear should rise as you do. Your chest should stay still.
- Count to three after the inhale, and then breathe out.
Pursed lip breathing
This method helps you focus on your breathing pace.
- Relax your head, neck, and shoulders.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for 2 seconds. Keep the mouth closed.
- Breathe out through the mouth for 4 seconds. Pucker your lips while you breathe out. Exhale gently, not with force.
- Repeat this for several months up to 5 times each day for best results.
Alternate nostril breathing
This is another form of yogic breathing.
- Place your left hand on your lap. Raise your right hand and rest the pointer and middle fingers on your forehead between the eyebrows. Close your eyes and breathe in and out through the nose.
- Next, use the right thumb to close off the right nostril. Breathe in through the left nostril.
- Holding the breath in, use your ring or pinky finger to pinch off the other nostril so both are closed. Pause for a beat.
- Now release the thumb from your right nostril while keeping the left nostril closed so that you breathe out through the right nostril.
- Pause between breaths, then do this the opposite way—breathe in through the right, pinch and pause, and then breathe out through the left nostril.
- Continue alternating until you have done each nostril up to 10 times per session.
Counting breath techniques
Counting breath techniques were designed to help someone relax and go to sleep, but they can be used at any time during the day for anxiety.
- Sit with your back straight or lay down flat on your back.
- Place the tip of the tongue against the ridge behind the top front teeth. Keep it there the whole time.
- Exhale through the mouth and make a “whoosh” sound.
- Close your mouth. Breathe in through the nose and count to 4.
- Hold your breath while you count to 7.
- Breathe out while you count to 8.
- Repeat several times until you feel more relaxed.
Alternative Breathing Methods
There are other ways to use breathing as part of anti-anxiety lifestyle support.
Guided meditation exercises can be practiced in group classes, by watching a video on the internet, by using an app, or by listening to audio.
The guided part is designed to help keep your mind focused on the breath, and away from wandering or stressful thoughts, while you practice breathing techniques.
Guided meditations can be done on specific topics, like stress or anxiety relief, or they can just be about focused breathing.
Mindfulness breathing is about focusing your thoughts on your breath.
You can do this by pairing any above breathing exercise with specific thoughts, phrases, or focuses.
If you notice that your mind wanders during this time, simply come back to your selected focus and continue.
As you get used to mindfulness practices, your mind will not get distracted as frequently.
The key is to engage in thoughts that are non-judgmental and that bring you back to the present moment.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) breathing focuses on taking turns tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups.
Usually you start at the feet and work your way up to your head, focusing on deep, intentional, slow breathing the whole time.
This can also be called body scan breathing or body scan meditation.
PMR breathing can have a quick impact on your body’s stress levels and tension.
It can help you recognize and release tension that you may not be aware of.
When to See a Medical Professional
If you struggle with anxiety, tell a healthcare professional.
Even if you feel that it is mild, a healthcare provider can recommend lifestyle changes, OTC medications, or home remedies that you could try to support your mental well-being.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
The role of deep breathing on stress. (2017).
The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. (2017)
Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation. (2021).