The Complete Guide to Breathwork for Anxiety

 

 

Breathwork is a term used to describe the mindfulness practice of conscious breathing. During breathwork, we actively control the length and depth of our inhales and exhales, to have an effect on our emotional and physical state.

Breathwork is an active form of meditation with many health benefits including reduced stress and anxiety, better sleep, and boosted mood. In this article, we will review how breathwork and anxiety are related and how to perform the best breathwork exercises for anxiety at home.

 

Anxiety & breathing: how are they connected?

It’s a common misconception that anxiety takes place exclusively inside the mind. How often does someone try to help reduce anxiety by telling us to “think positively”? In reality, the stress response has much more to do with our entire body, and harnessing the power of the breath can be one of the most effective ways to restore relaxation.

 

What is anxiety and what causes it?

Anxiety is a general feeling of unease in the body that can feel similar to worry or fear. It is a feeling of apprehension about future events, and can range from mild to severe. More scientifically, anxiety is a response to stress by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and a component of the larger “fight-or-flight” response. When the brain detects danger, the body instantly launches into a series of physiological and hormonal responses to aid in fighting or escaping a perilous situation. 

While this evolutionary trait saved our ancestors from many predators and natural disasters, our bodies unfortunately did not develop the ability to differentiate between a giant black bear and an uncomfortable conversation on the horizon. This is where mindfulness practices, such as breathing exercises, can be helpful in counteracting these primal instincts.

 

How is it related to breathing?

The ANS is a vast series of self-regulating functions that keep us alive, including vasomotor activity, (i.e. blood vessel dilation) cardiac regulation, the digestive system, urination, sexual arousal, and the respiratory system. Anxiety can have an effect on most of these functions. However, the most immediately noticeable symptom to someone experiencing anxiety is likely to be a sudden change in breathing pattern, which can be the first indicator that something is wrong.

 

How can breathwork help?

The ANS is made up mostly of involuntary functions. Needless to say, one can’t consciously decide to start digesting their food differently or will their blood vessels to dilate. The one notable exception to this is, of course, breathing. The respiratory system is our one point of access into the ANS; while it does function independently, we can also take the wheel and breathe at our own speed and depth. 

Our wilful control of the amount of oxygen we take in, and carbon dioxide we expel, means that we can consciously adjust the chemical makeup of our own nervous system. In doing so, we can use the breath to send a signal that we aren’t actually in danger. Breathwork has the power to impact our digestion, heart rate, sexual libido and blood pressure, among others.

 

Best breathing exercises for anxiety

Healing anxiety through breathwork has been practiced all over the globe for thousands of years. Some methods are simple, while others are much more nuanced. Here are a few easy breathing techniques for anxiety that serve as a great starting point.

 

Deep breathing or belly breathing

This is the one most people are likely to already be familiar with- “Just take a few deep breaths”, is something we’ve heard before, and it’s good advice. However, there are a few more specific details in this powerful breathing technique for anxiety.

  • Slow your breathing. Favour longer, deeper inhalations and exhalations over short, quick breaths.
  • Breathe in and out through your nose. This aids in slowing the breath and actually helps the body absorb more oxygen. 
  • Imagine breathing deep into your lower torso, rather than the chest. Yes, our lungs in our chest are where we’re really breathing into, but imagining breathing into the belly helps drop the diaphragm and pelvic diaphragm, making more room in our body for the lungs to expand. It can help to place one hand on the chest and one on the belly, and make a concerted effort to send the breath to the hand on your belly, rather than the one on your chest. 

Check out this video for a demonstration on how to do deep belly breathing.

 

Box breathing

This method, also known as square breathing, is a widely favoured form of breathwork. In case you needed proof of its efficacy, Navy SEALs, police officers and nurses all commonly implement box breathing for anxiety as part of their training, and it’s safe to say that these are positions in which knowing how to manage anxiety is key. It’s also very simple to practice and can be done anywhere, at any time. Just follow these steps.

  • Seated in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor, slowly exhale all the way to the end of your breath. 
  • Inhale slowly on a count of four, all the way in until you’ve reached your full lung capacity.
  • Hold the breath at the top of your inhale for an equal count of four. 
  • On another count of four, exhale all the way until your lungs are completely empty. 
  • Hold your breath on the exhale for another count of four. 
  • Repeat for as long as is helpful, until you feel better.

 

Buteyko breathing

The Buteyko method of breathwork is named after Ukrainian Doctor Konstantin Buteyko, who based his work on the idea that most people were suffering from over-breathing. Whereas many people’s belief would be that taking in more oxygen equals better breathing and better health, Buteyko’s methods are founded in gently reducing one’s oxygen intake to improve the body’s ability to absorb oxygen, prevent hyperventilation and trigger the “rest and digest” state of the ANS by mimicking our breath patterns when we’re at rest. 

There are several exercises within the Buteyko method, and all begin from the principle that we should all be nose-breathing, whether awake or asleep. To practice the Buteyko method: 

  • Begin breathing through the nose. Start to slow down the breath, and keep the breath gentle and quiet, rather than taking deep inhalations to the top of your lung capacity.
  • Continue slowing down the breath, until you begin to feel a slight air shortage. Resist the urge to take deeper breaths, but maintain these light breaths.
  • Continue breathing like this for one minute, focusing attention on the breath. 

Follow along for this 10-minute, guided Buteyko breathwork video.

 

Yoga breathing

Yoga classes are many peoples’ introduction to using breathing techniques to adjust the body or mind, whether it’s for reducing anxiety, improving physical performance or as a form of meditation. Yogic breathing is also known as “Pranayama;”  In sanskrit, “prana” means spirit or life energy and “yama” means control. There are several techniques within pranayama that are used to find calm and mental clarity, and each can have multiple benefits beyond just alleviating anxiety.

 

Victorious breathing

Ujjayi, or Victorious breath is the practice of breathing through your nose and constricting your throat enough that the breath makes a whooshing sound. This practice does double duty in that it both slows down the breath, and the engaged muscle activity along with the sound helps one focus in on the breath, driving out distractions and achieving a meditative state.

 

Humming bee breath

Bhramari, or Humming Bee Breath is a meditative breathing technique in which one closes their eyes, inhales and gently plugs their ears with their fingers as they loudly hum on the exhalation. The cranial vibrations are believed to be physically soothing, while the sensory deprivation and noise from humming is helpful in drowning out any intrusive thoughts.

 

Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing is the practice of gently plugging one nostril at a time while slowly inhaling and exhaling. It takes the benefits of nasal breathing one step further, while aiding in unblocking of the sinuses, all while helping the practitioner focus their intention on the breath. 

The basic technique is:

  •  sitting comfortably, exhale all the way through the nostrils. Then, use the right thumb to block the right nostril and inhale through the left. 
  • At the top of the inhale, release the right nostril and block the left nostril with the left forefinger. Exhale through the right nostril. 
  • Inhale through the right nostril, then switch back to blocking the right nostril, exhaling through the left. Repeat this pattern for as long as is useful.

 

Lion's breath breathing

Simsahana, or Lion’s Breath, possesses unique benefits for alleviating anxiety; stress can cause a lot of muscle tension throughout the body, but it’s easy to forget about how we’re clenching the jaw, pursing the lips or furrowing the brow. Releasing some of this tension can provide relaxation as well as alleviate headaches. Plus, it has the added benefit of looking and feeling a bit silly, so we remember not to take things so seriously for a moment. To practice Lion’s Breath: 

  • If it is available to you, kneel with your seat resting on your feet. If not, cross-legged or seated in a chair will work fine. Sit up tall and inhale deeply through the nose. 
  • On the exhale, open your mouth and eyes as wide as possible and stick your tongue out all the way, exhaling strongly and making a “ha” sound with the breath. Some recommend also focusing your gaze on the tip of your nose, crossing the eyes. 
  • Relax the face, closing your eyes and mouth on the inhale. Repeat 3-4 times.

 

Try it Now: 11-Minute 3-Part Breath for Anxiety Video 

A breathwork practice for beginners! This breathwork style is one of the basic pranayama techniques. It is a fundamental practice to increase the capacity of your breath and reduce anxiety. Nicole will break your breath into its three distinct parts, giving you the foundation for a full deep breath. This pattern helps focus your attention on the present moment and get in tune with the sensations of your physical body. 

Check out other Inward Breathwork videos on youtube:

Slo Mo Breath (Buteyko Style Breathwork)

Using the principles of Buteyko Breath, let Harry guide you into a deep and controlled state of relaxation through slow and controlled nose breathing. The Buteyko Method, developed by a physiologist in the 1950’s, is meant to retrain the body’s breathing pattern to correct for the chronic hyperventilated state we live in today. ⁠

The Gentle Start (Guided Breathwork Video)

Today it’s extremely common to never experience full-blown, life- threatening stress, but to never fully relax either. Our nervous system is stuck in an in-between state half-stimulated and our organs aren’t able to rest. Chronic stress creates communication problems for the nervous system. Eight of the top ten most common cancers affect organs cut off from normal blood flow during extended states of stress. 

This is a video exercise to teach you to consciously turn on heavy stress for short bursts, specifically so that we can turn it off and spend the rest of our days and nights relaxing and restoring. We’ll be giving our nervous system a full reset.

 

Best Breathing Apps and Websites For Anxiety

With the help of technology, there’s never been a better time to see what breathwork can do for you. 

 

Inward Breathwork

Reduce stress & anxiety from home with guided breathing exercises set to incredible music from Inward Breathwork. Inward is a new platform that allows you to make breathwork a daily practice with the world’s best facilitators. It features unlimited, on-demand breathwork sessions to improve sleep, boost mood, and reduce anxiety. 

Get started with 7-days free and try the 14-day structured program to reduce anxiety in less than 20-minutes per day.

 

my.life

my.life is an app created by Stop, Breathe & Think, an Emotional Wellness platform created by Julie Campistron and Jamie Price. my.life is among the best breathing apps for anxiety, providing short mindfulness activities such as journaling, meditation, yoga and breathwork, all attuned to however you’re feeling on that day. It even has breathing exercises for anxiety for kids, so that the entire family can join in. my.life is available to download from Apple or Google Play.

 

Calm

Calm is perhaps the most well-known of the Wellness apps, due to its extensive marketing and roster of celebrities lending their voice to the app. Described as a “Mental Fitness” app, it provides many options for guided meditations, sleep stories and master classes, all based around mindfulness and improving one’s sleep.

 

The Science of Breathwork For Anxiety

Though the practice of breathwork for anxiety goes back thousands of years, scientists are continuing to make discoveries about all of the intricate ways in which breathing techniques can affect the body. The benefits of breathwork are ultimately rooted in what we began by discussing, the Autonomic Nervous System. 

 

How controlled breathing calms your brain 

When stress or panic sets in, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS or “fight-or-flight”) takes over, and while this is useful for escaping immediate danger, the toll it takes on our bodies is substantial. Hormones flood our system, we receive a big shot of glucose into our bloodstream, our heart rate increases and our blood vessels constrict, causing blood pressure to spike.

Luckily, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, “rest-and-digest”) is designed to come to the rescue, lowering blood pressure, increasing digestive activity, and levelling out the blood glucose and insulin levels. 

Problems arise when our daily lives are so stressful that we’re constantly in a state of “fight-or-flight” and the “rest-and-digest” never gets a chance to take over. The negative impact on our bodies from constant hormonal and glucose spikes, high blood pressure and lack of sleep can be dangerous, and even deadly. This is where breathwork comes in. 

Implementing breathwork is a method of reverse-engineering the parasympathetic nervous system into action via our gateway into the autonomic nervous system— the breath. Controlling the way we breathe sends the signal to our brain that the danger is gone, and the PNS can start counteracting the damage done by the SNS. 

Implementing this practice into our daily lives can result in better sleep and weight loss due to the leveling out of hormones, insulin and blood glucose, better GI activity due to the SNS no longer inhibiting digestion, and many other benefits. 

 

3 research studies and articles on benefits of breathwork for anxiety

Despite breathwork for anxiety being a common practice for most of human history, scientific studies have only recently begun exploring its concrete medical benefits; here are a few examples of their findings.  

 

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