Try One of These 7 Breathing Exercises Next Time You Feel Anxious

Slowing down your breathing can help slow down your mind.

Not only are we living in a particularly anxiety-inducing time (hello, COVID-19 pandemic), but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. While there are several different types, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is reported to affect approximately 6.8 million adults—or 3.1% of the U.S. population—with women twice as likely to be affected as men. But despite its commonality, many people still struggle to get a hold on their anxiety, let alone be treated for it; the ADAA reports that only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.

Though a doctor or therapist will best be able to find the right coping mechanisms for you, luckily, feelings of excessive worry or fear can also be mitigated by a few simple breathing exercises. These exercises work by relaxing your mind and body as you consciously slow down your inhales and exhales. “Deep breathing also increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness,” reports The American Institute of Stress. Additionally, meditation expert Josephine Atluri tells us that the act of witnessing your breath moving in and out of your body allows you to step away from the stress and move into a more mindful state.

The best part is that these exercises can be done anytime and anywhere. So the next time you’re feeling anxious, remind yourself that a bit of deep breathing may help recenter you.

7 Easy Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

1. Counted breathing

Counted or paced breathing is done exactly the way it sounds. The beauty is in its simplicity. Atluri recommends inhaling for four seconds, then holding your breath for four seconds and, finally, exhaling for four seconds. This is also known as boxed breathwork. Counted breathing can also be done in the four-seven-eight method, where you inhale through your nose to a mental count of four, then hold your breath for a count of seven and, finally, exhale completely through your mouth to a count of eight. Repeat this as needed, or follow the helpful GIF above.

2. Ocean breathing

“Imagine how the ocean waves flow into the shore, never stopping and always flowing in and out,” says Atluri. Start by inhaling slowly. Then, without taking a pause, flow your inhale immediately into your exhale. Repeat the process by flowing your exhale into your inhale without a pause and envisioning the serenity of a wide-open ocean.

3. Belly breathing

Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to take deeper, more satisfying breaths. According to Harvard Health, this method encourages the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide in what is known as a full oxygen exchange. This type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure. Think of it as though you’re filling your body head to toe with oxygen. On your inhale, rather than breathing only into your chest, send your breath into your belly first and feel your stomach expand. Fill the belly and chest with as much air as possible.

If it is helpful, Atluri suggests placing one hand on your chest and one on your belly to feel the rise and fall of each movement. When you exhale, release the air from your belly and chest by using the hand on your belly to push all of the air out. Repeat the process, each time seeing how long you can make each inhale and exhale.

4. Alternate nostril breathing

breathing exercises for anxiety, alternate nostril breathing

A favorite of yogis, alternate nostril breathing forces you to focus on controlling your breaths and quieting your mind by fixating on something other than what is making you anxious. In addition to calming the mind, the method has been said to support our lungs and respiratory functions, restore balance in the left and right hemispheres of the brain by clearing the energetic channels, and rejuvenate the nervous system.

To begin the practice, start by sitting in a comfortable position with your legs crossed. Place your left hand on your left knee, then, lift your right hand up toward your nose. On a complete exhale, use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your thumb. Next, exhale through the open right nostril. Continue this for up to five minutes, always finishing on a full exhale. 

5. Laughter breathing

Laughter breathing is a combination of laughter yoga and pranayama (yogic breathing). And while laughing may be the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling anxious, Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CLYL, explains that the mental health benefits of laughter are incredibly helpful for making us feel more relaxed. “This is one of the most joyful and helpful breathing exercises,” she says.

To get started, think of  “Ha, Ha, Ha,” like when you laugh. In this exercise, exhalation (Ha) is going to be longer than inhalation (Ho), hence ridding the lungs of remaining air, which is then replaced by fresh air containing a higher level of oxygen. Don’t stop yourself if you start laughing while practicing this technique, even if it feels forced or unnatural at first.

6. Active breathing

According to Catchings, the main idea behind active breathing is to integrate physical activity with breathing to reduce severe anxiety. Here, you will inhale through your nose to a count of three and exhale through your mouth to a count of three as you climb the stairs. The count for your breathing cadence should correspond with how quickly or slowly you climb the stairs. “Incorporating exercise and breathing [together] allows us to get more oxygen and to create endorphins that make us feel happy, while mitigating feelings of anxiety,” says Catchings.

7. Breathing GIFs

If you’re having a hard time catching your breath or remembering specific breathing exercises, try looking up a breathing GIF. These helpful visuals work by allowing you to center on a focal point and really visualize your breaths. To use them, sync each breath with the movement that’s being shown on the screen. For the one above, take an inhale as the ball travels upwards, then exhale on its decline.