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Breathing Exercises for Anxiety Control

Updated on May 27, 2012

Anxiety and Breathing Techniques

Anxiety and stress can make life difficult. If you are anxious person, or if you have panic attacks, you may have been told that it is “all in your head,” but that’s not entirely true. In fact, the physical symptoms of anxiety are not only very real and often very troublesome, but many of the most effective ways to treat anxiety succeed because they impact the physical symptoms, such as breathing.

When someone is afraid, stressed, anxious or having a panic attack, they experience a number of anxiety manifestations that are physical symptoms.. This includes a surge of stress hormones like cortisol, rapid heart rate, shallow but fast breathing, tense muscles, cold and sweaty hands and feet, and other anxiety symptoms associated with the fight or flight response syndrome and the autonomic nervous system.

Breathing exercises for anxiety management are aimed at mobilizing the parallel system of physical responses. By changing the breathing response, the whole system of related reactions can also dampen down, de-escalate and unwind the stress response. Slow deep breathing is one of the easiest methods you can use to mobilize your body’s relaxation response, and to reverse the amped-up physical syndrome that accompanies anxiety and stress.

Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

The Art of Breathing

The kind of breathing you would like to learn, to better manage your anxiety, is a deep, slow breathing that makes use of the muscles of the diaphragm. Learning to manage anxiety involves some of the same skills that a singer develops, if the singer wishes to hold a note for a long time, or an actor, who needs to take in enough air that he can project loudly from the stage in his “stage voice.”

Actors and singers often take voice lessons, while persons dealing with anxiety often learn to breathe by going to a psychologist or reading self-help books on anxiety management. The diaphragm is a muscle area just below the lower ribs. When you are breathing deeply, you use this muscle and lung area to inhale very deeply (this improves with practice).

Practicing slow deep breathing is easier to do with the guidance of a therapist, and ideally it can be practiced in a neutral time, when anxiety is not at its peak. Once the skill becomes almost second nature, it can be deployed as a method for interrupting or countering the “keyed up” anxiety and stress responses.

Use Your Diaphram for Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

Four Square Breathing Technique

Early on, before a client has mastered this slow and relaxing breathing, it can be useful to have a few reminders that help with building good breathing habits. One easy to teach method of deeper breathing - good for rank beginners - is an exersise known as “four square breathing.” It is easy to remember and can be done by almost anyone, as it does not require much strength in the diaphragm, (however you will eventually want to have a strong diaphragm).

In four square breathing, you count to four each of four times. Count slowly to four while breathing in (1, 2, 3, 4..) – then hold your breath for another count of four, then while breathing out, count again to four, and then count to four one more time before repeating the cycle, by breathing in again. Repeat this cycle at least four times as one of the breathing exercises for anxiety, to build the good habit.

Some people find this easy to do and easier still to remember. While it does not lead to really deep and profoundly relaxing breathing, it is sufficiently deep to interrupt the shallow rapid breaths that are characteristic of the fight or flight phenomena and of other types of stressful anxious breathing.

The Seven/Eleven Breathing Technique

A deeper breathing exercise - and one that is closer to the kind of breathing that comes with practice - is known as 7-11. This is a little harder to do if you have neglected your diaphragm muscles and they are weak, as the deeper breathing this technique calls for is not always within easy reach until you have practiced.

In the 7-11 breathing technique, you count slowly to seven while breathing in. (maybe not as slowly as “one thousand one, one thousand two,”etc., but almost that slow). While breathing out, you slowly count to 11 before repeating the cycle. Thisis one of the breathing exercises for anxiety that should be done several times for the cumulative desired effect.

Technique For Overcoming Anxiety

Modify the Breathing Exercises to Strengthen Them

Modifications are often useful to strengthen the impact. Some recommend that, while doing breathing exercises for anxiety, you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. More advanced yoga techniques might have you inhaling through one nostril and out another. While these modifications are not necessary, if you find one of them helpful you should consider adopting or adapting it.

Visualization can be helpful to strengthen the effects of the breathing. If you find a color especially evocative (for you) of calm or of peace, you might accompany the intake with an awareness that this color is spreading into your lungs or throughout your body. Others have found it helpful to imagine a peaceful scene that brings them comfort and/or serenity.

One very effective way to make the breathing technique more powerful is to combine it with another relaxation technique, such as tensing and relaxing muscles. In this modification, you can squeeze the muscles in your hands and forearms tensing them as you breathe in, and then gradually relax the same muscles as you breathe out. 

photo credit: anxiety by Solis Invicti

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    • authorfriendly profile image

      authorfriendly 5 years ago from Charleston, SC


      I know that experts in martial arts (and yoga for that matter) know a lot about managing their bodies, it is not a surprise to learn you know how to use breathing exercises for anxiety and other self control.

    • authorfriendly profile image

      authorfriendly 5 years ago from Charleston, SC


      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes these breathing techniques are proven stress busters and not just for anxiety management.

    • bmcoll3278 profile image

      bmcoll3278 5 years ago from Longmont, Colorado

      Great hub I studied martial arts for several years and used these techniques. they do work. I have also had anxiety attacks and this is how I treat them. I can tell other readers this is good sound advise and will help.

    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi 5 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Great explanation of breathing techniques. I don't have anxiety problems but use it whenever I am feeling stressed or like things are getting a bit out of control.