Breathing is an involuntary action that supplies our bodies with fresh oxygen and flushes out carbon dioxide.
We often pay very little attention to this automatic process. But it can also be controlled voluntarily to help regulate our mood and emotions, via a 2020 review in Medicines (Basel). Improper breathing, on the other hand, can throw our bodies off balance in all kinds of ways, according to PainScience.com. It can cause and exacerbate stress, headaches, body pain, and various emotional issues.
There are many powerful breathing exercises that can be used to help release tension stored in the body (via a 2018 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience). Breathing activates your vagus nerve, which plays a key role in regulating your parasympathetic nervous system. This slows down bodily functions like heart rate and circulation. Taking deeper, more intentional breaths, in particular, can dial down anxiety by stimulating vagal activation of GABA pathways in the brain (per Medicines (Basel).
Here are some science-backed breathing exercises that can help prevent and fend off anxiety.
The effects of shallow breathing
Most of us have been conditioned to take shallow breaths, or to breathe with our upper chest (via Headspace). We tend to inhale quickly through the mouth, take in a small amount of air, and hold our breath without realizing. But we weren't born to breathe this way –- we develop this habit over time. Proper breathing, on the other hand, should be deep, expanding the belly and filling the lungs.
We may not realize it, but shallow breathing keeps us locked in a cycle of anxiety. Our body's built-in fight-or-flight system means that we're designed to take quick, small breaths when we're feeling stressed out: Our muscles tighten and our heartbeat quickens, priming us for action. This naturally causes us to hold our breath. By the same token, shallow breathing induces feelings of stress, reducing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your brain.
Shallow breathing has a number of negative physiological and psychological effects, per an article in the Journal of Neuroscience. It can cause panic attacks, impair your memory, and slow down your cognitive processes. Research shows that it brings down the number of lymphocytes in your body (via Headspace). This is a type of white blood cell that helps your immune system fight infections and viruses. In other words, people who take short, superficial breaths might be more vulnerable to diseases than those who breathe deeply.
There are many different forms of slow breathing exercises, all of which have the potential to reduce stress and anxiety by acting on the autonomic nervous system (via a 2017 article in Breathe). When breathing normally, humans generally take between 10 and 20 breaths per minute. A slow breathing technique is defined as any exercise that lowers your breathing rate to somewhere between four and 10 breaths a minute.
There are lots of positive psychophysiological effects of slow breathing, according to research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Slowing down your breath is a very simple way to change gears and shift your body and mind into a deeply relaxed state. There's evidence that slow, deep breathing can help lift stress and anxiety in older adults, making way for more peaceful aging (via Scientific Reports). From a biological standpoint, drawing a protracted breath sends a signal to your brain that you're safe. Your pulse slows down and your heart beat decelerates, making you feel more at ease.
Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called abdominal breathing, is a popular technique that's known for its anxiety-relieving effects, per an article in Medicines (Basel). It's been used to improve the respiratory capacities of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition in which air gets trapped in the lungs, causing diaphragm muscle weakness. It involves taking slow, deep breaths through the nose, both inhaling and exhaling for six seconds. Your chest should remain still while your stomach expands as you actively engage the diaphragm.
Each time you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and moves down toward your abdomen, per Harvard Health Publishing. And with every exhalation, it relaxes and moves upward, helping your abdomen to push air out of the lungs. This type of breathing allows for an efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. It stimulates parasympathetic nervous system activity, slowing down your heart beat and lowering or stabilizing your blood pressure.
A study published in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care found that diaphragmatic breathing, when practiced over 8 weeks, helped bring down anxiety in patients in clinical and community settings. Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that diaphragmatic breathing can also treat stress, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, hypertension, and migraines, as well as improving quality of life in people with cancer and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Breathing from the diaphragm may be beneficial for the brain, as well as the body's cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems.
Yogic breathing, also known as Pranayama, is one of the main components of yoga, according to an article in Frontiers in Psychology. The ancient yogis of India discovered that controlling the breath could induce profound relaxation. Over the years, researchers have found that yogic breathing has various mental and physical health benefits, including getting rid of anxiety, tension, and anger.
Most pranayamic breathing techniques reset the autonomic nervous system, shifting it toward parasympathetic dominance, notes a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Yoga. In other words, they slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. This can help regulate physiological arousal and stress, producing feelings of calmness and alertness.
Research shows that both fast and slow pranayama can alleviate stress, even though they may create different physiological responses (via International Journal of Yoga). Pranava is a type of slow pranayama that involves taking deep and rhythmic breaths. Practitioners are instructed to exhale two or three times longer than they inhale, while making the sounds AAA, UUU and MMM. And then there's Kapalabhati Pranayama, which is an energizing technique. With this technique, you're instructed to stick out your tongue and pant like a dog while sitting on the ground with your palms down and fingers pointed forward. You breathe in and out rapidly for 10 to 15 rounds, and this is repeated for three cycles.
Based on ancient yogic breathing practices, 4-7-8 breathing was designed to soothe the body and mind (via research published in the International Journal of Health Sciences and Research). This potent technique has been shown to promote relaxation and curtail anxiety. It has sleep-inducing effects and could be used as a natural alternative to sleep medications to help lull you into slumber, per the Alaska Sleep Clinic.
You can practice this technique while lying down, but it's best to learn it in a seated position with your back straight, notes DrWeil.com. Start by placing the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there for the duration of the exercise. Exhale through your mouth around your tongue, making a "whoosh" sound as you empty your lungs. Then inhale through your nose for four counts. Hold your breath for seven counts. Then, breathe out through your mouth again (and around your tongue) for eight counts. You can repeat this pattern three times.
The 4-7-8 breathing method helps calm down your whole system by increasing the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA in your brain (via the International Journal of Health Sciences and Research). This, in turn, reduces cortisol, your body's primary stress hormone. A slow, prolonged exhalation also helps saturate the blood with oxygen and remove more carbon dioxide from the lungs than normal.