The link between breath & anxiety is a powerful one. Breath is the fastest way to downregulate the mind & body out of anxiety or panic because our breathing affects many parts of our brain in different ways. It’s faster than meditation, exercise, or talking.
So what is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural human response to stress. ‘Stress’ can be physical or psychological, real or imagined. It can be something from the past, something in our present, or something expected in the future. When stress occurs in our mind-body system, our breath is the first thing to change. When we experience stress our breath pace either gets faster or we hold our breath – this is part of our fight/flight response and is our body’s way of protecting us from danger. Both responses start a feedback loop that, if not interrupted, will allow stress to mount and mount.
Anxiety occurs when stress occurs over and over and builds up patterns in the brain leaving us over-activated and ‘switched on’. This can sometimes happen we were are under more stress than we realise or when we lack tools to downregulate (create calm) after stressful experiences. This build up of stress in our mind-body system causes chemical changes in the body such as change in pH of the blood, and increased release of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones).
Anxiety & panic are extremely uncomfortable. Knowing how to use breathwork in a way that works for your nervous system can be a powerful tool to hit the brakes on all those symptoms of shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, feeling hot, tingling, etc.
Why is breathwork so good for anxiety?
Breathwork is the fastest way to create calm in the mind & body because:
- When we breathe deliberately in specific patterns with awareness, our higher brain lights up & restores our ability to focus, think clearly & make good decisions (this is sometimes called executive function)
- Downregulating breathwork slows down our breath pace which slows down our heart rate and dilates our blood vessels which allows more oxygen to be delivered around the body. This creates relaxation in the larger, outer muscles and allows the mind-body system to relax from the outside in. It’s proven to improve mood, reduce anxiety, promote learning & improve memory.
- It can be used anywhere, anytime without any equipment and it’s completely free.
Basically, downregulating breathwork sends a message to your brain that you are safe.
So what do I need to do?
- Commit to a 5 minute practice every day (yes, just 5 minutes!)
- Begin learning to slow your respiratory rate. This is the speed at which you are breathing. You can do this by breathing through your nose gently & softly, then slowly increase the length of your exhale. Practice slowing your respiratory rate to a 5 second inhale followed by a 5 second exhale for 5 minutes per day.
- Start noticing. Notice when your breath pace increases during the day and allow yourself an opportunity to slow it back down gently.
Okay, I’ve done that – what other breathwork can I do for anxiety?
Try the Physiological Sigh. This is a simple pattern of:
- One big inhale through the nose
- Another small inhale through the nose which helps stretch the lungs
- Followed by a slow exhale through the mouth or nose
Can I use breathwork when I have a panic attack?
Yes, but it’s a bit like a fire extinguisher. If you wait to try it out in an emergency, chances are you’re not going to know how to use it very well. So breathwork for panic attacks is most effective when you’ve been practicing a little bit every day and started to build up breath as a skill.
I’ve tried calming breathwork when I’m anxious but it made me feel worse. What’s happening?
Sometimes we try to too hard. The nervous system will push back if we try to push it into calming down too quickly. If you feel anxious it’s very important that we meet the nervous system where it is – and during anxiety / panic it’s in a very keyed up, switched on state. We can’t drive anxiety out of ourselves but instead need to gently coax the nervous system into calm. So when breathing through panic you may, at first, not be breathing very slowly. Allow your body to lead the slowing of your breath. When we try to rush the nervous system into calm it kicks back. And the nervous system always wins. So take your time, follow your body.
Is there any breathwork that I shouldn’t be doing if I have anxiety?
Yes, if you are prone to panic or anxiety attacks it’s very important to steer clear of upregulating or stimulating breathwork. These include any practices with lots of strong inhales which increase oxygen in the brain and stimulate the release of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones.)
These include Wim Hof Breathing, Tummo breathing or any cyclical hyperventilation. There is a full article on how these practices affect the nervous system here.
I sometimes feel anxious during / after exercise like I can’t catch my breath. Why is that?
If you are prone to panic or anxiety at the moment, it’s important to remember that exercise is a stressor. That doesn’t mean stop exercising but it gives you an opportunity to use breath after exercise to build calm back into the body. You can do this by allowing your breath pace to gradually return to normal at its own pace. This can be done by gently walking around after exertion, then sitting, then gradually laying on the ground and allowing your breath to return to about 5 second inhale and 5 second exhale for at least 2 minutes. This does 2 things:
- It helps you return your mind/body system back to calm after exertion
- It teaches your brain how to return to calm after stress
Where is the research on all this? I like to understand there is some science behind this stuff.
Check out the recent research publications in the footnotes or follow the Health & Human Performance Foundation ( @hhpfoundation ) on social media for a steady stream of the current science on breath & health.
I feel like I need some help with all this. Where can I learn more?
You can try Anxiety to Energy which is essentially a toolbox with coaching for anyone who feels anxiety is holding them back in life. 1:1 coaching is also available online or in person in Reading & West Berkshire UK.
Remember, calm is a skill that our mind / body system can learn. Anxiety is not a moral failing, it’s just a sign our nervous system needs some deep and well-deserved support.
Wishing you calm & stability,