In 2014, a visual breathing exercise in the form of a GIF made its way around the internet. Viewers inhale as the geometric shape in the GIF grows and exhale as the shape shrinks. The thought is that breathing in sync with the growing shape can decrease anxiety and relieve stress. The anxiety GIF made its way onto multiple social media platforms, and many people found the visual aid extremely helpful for coping with anxiety. As a result of its success, others have created similar visual breathing aid GIFs, many of which have also gone viral.
In honor of April’s Stress Awareness Month, we wanted to know if these visuals actually work and if there’s a #1 among them.
We first talked with Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist and the author of Anxiety & Panic Workbook. Although she wasn’t familiar with the use of GIFs as stress-relievers, Aman told us that she would absolutely recommend them to those she councils.
We then talked with Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College and the author of The Healing Power of the Breath. Dr. Gerbarg explained that the visual’s purpose is to help slow a person’s breathing, which therefore decreases a person’s anxiousness and/or panic. She noted that it’s the breathing that calms the anxiety rather than the actual visual.
With that in mind, Dr. Gerbarg told us that her preferred method for slowing down one’s breathing is via sound pacers rather than visuals.
Sound pacers, also called breath pacers, are soundtracks or tones that help a person regulate and slow down their inhaling and exhaling, preferably to five breaths per minute.
Dr. Gerbarg — who educates about the power of “breathwork” and a stress-relieving breathing method called “Coherent Breathing” via her website Breath-Body-Mind.com — told us that GIFs like the above activate the mind rather than calm it, because it’s necessary for us to follow the movements with our eyes. Not to mention visuals are also less convenient to access when in a hurry.
There are many sound and breath pacer apps available for download, such as “Two Bells” (www.coherence.com), Breathing Zone, or BreathPacer. You can simply plug in a pair of headphones and listen to the tones while in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack.
Then again, if you find that a visual aid helps calm your stress and anxiety more than a sound aid does, then do what works best for you. Try out both methods to see which one you respond to.
There’s unfortunately no “cure-all” for anxiety and panic attacks. But by trying as many coping methods as you can, you can hopefully find one, or several, that will work for you. And if you’re really in a rut, don’t hesitate to contact a professional for help.