5 Breathing Techniques to Ease Anxiety

5 Breathing Techniques to Ease Anxiety

“Just breathe”—a common piece of advice that seems almost too simple to be a remedy for the racing heart and spiraling thoughts of anxiety. Yet emerging research is beginning to uncover a profound link between the way that we breathe and our mental health.

The Science of Breathing and Anxiety

Consider a scenario where, despite using medication, altering your diet, and maintaining a positive outlook, anxiety persists because a crucial element—your breathing—hasn’t been addressed. It’s a viewpoint that author and journalist James Nestor holds dearly in his book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.” He spent 10 years with experts—scientists, doctors, yogis, and breathwork practitioners—to explore the profound effect of breathing practices on health; it positioned them as a key tool for managing anxiety.
An Austrailian study states that dysfunctional breathing may affect up to 83 percent of people with anxiety. According to Mr. Nestor, this is not coincidental. “If your breathing is not in check, you can never fully get your anxiety under control".

Which Comes First?

Breathing slowly, easily, and less is a cornerstone strategy for easing anxiety. It’s not about taking more breaths but about making each breath count toward calming the nervous system and reducing stress.

Erik Peper of the Institute for Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University emphasizes the critical role of breathing in connecting the mind and body, promoting tranquility, and healing. By engaging in slower abdominal breathing—approximately six breaths per minute—we can stimulate the parasympathetic system and reduce our body’s panic response. Mr. Peper notes that transitioning from quick, shallow chest breaths to deeper, slower breathing can markedly lessen anxiety and the physiological reactions to fear.

The Carbon Dioxide Connection

Breathing’s effect on anxiety goes beyond the nervous system’s scope. The amygdala—a part of the brain known for managing our emotional responses — has a crucial interaction with carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in anxiety disorders. He found that anxiety sufferers often exhibit a reduced tolerance for CO2 in their blood.

The research reveals a cycle wherein anxiety or fear of a panic attack leads people to adopt ineffective breathing patterns such as hyperventilating or mouth breathing. These techniques worsen the problem by decreasing CO2 tolerance. And an increase in CO2 levels, often seen during panic or asthma attacks, frequently triggers anxiety.

Previous studies have identified that CO2 inhalation affects individuals with panic disorder more intensely, leading to more significant anxiety than in those without the disorder. This amplified response to CO2 reflects the body’s natural fight-or-flight response and implies that such a reaction could be a telltale biological indicator of anxiety disorders. “It is no coincidence that people with severe anxiety, agoraphobia, anorexia, and other fear-based diseases can oftentimes only hold their breath for 5–6 seconds,” Mr. Nestor says.

He points out that these individuals are in a chronic state of hyperventilation. “Even the slightest peak of carbon dioxide scares them,” he says. This ongoing hyperventilation stimulates a sympathetic response, further impairing both physical and mental health.

Studies have shown that specific breathing strategies to regulate blood carbon dioxide levels can alleviate panic disorder symptoms. In one investigation, subjects employed a capnometer—a tool for monitoring CO2 and oxygen levels—to master control over their breathing patterns and prevent hyperventilation. Participants who reduced their breathing rate experienced significant relief from panic attack symptoms. This evidence underscores that maintaining CO2 equilibrium, rather than deep breathing, is more effective in managing anxiety.

Below are five practical techniques to weave this concept into your daily life for better anxiety management:

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

This technique involves closing off one nostril at a time while breathing in and out through the other. It helps balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, promoting relaxation and mental clarity.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Also known as deep belly breathing, this method encourages full oxygen exchange and can significantly lower cortisol levels, reducing the body’s stress response.

3. Inner Nourishing Qi-Gong

This practice combines breathing with the repetition of calming phrases. As you inhale deeply into your belly, think, “I am.” Hold your breath briefly while thinking, “calm,” then exhale slowly with the thought, “and relaxed.” This method fosters a deep sense of inner peace.

4. Buteyko Breathing

This method focuses on shallow breathing and holding the breath to increase CO2 tolerance. By encouraging gentle breaths through the nose and minimizing breath volume, Buteyko breathing helps to relax the nervous system and reduce anxiety symptoms. The idea is to create a mild air hunger, thus improving CO2 tolerance and helping to diminish anxiety symptoms over time.

5. Coherent Breathing

This technique involves breathing at a rate of five to six breaths per minute, synchronizing the heart, mind, and body for optimal balance and relaxation. By inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply, coherent breathing helps to maximize oxygen intake and reduce stress, making it an effective tool for managing anxiety.

Consistency Matters

Consistent practice of breathing techniques is key. Similar to how sporadic exercise won’t make you fit, regular dedication to these breathing practices is crucial. “When we’re practicing these breathing habits, they may start to feel really redundant. That is done on purpose,” Mr. Nestor says. “You have to do these things over and over and over again to get the true benefit.”
Establishing a routine that incorporates these exercises into daily life can transform them from simple practices into powerful tools for managing and preventing anxiety.

Enhancing Effects Through Combined Therapies

By adjusting our breathing patterns, we can essentially “hack” our bodies into a state of calm, reducing the physiological symptoms associated with anxiety. Integrating these breathing methods with other treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, or yoga can supercharge their power to combat stress. These combinations offer more than a quick fix—they lay the groundwork for a healthier mind over time.

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