Anxiety is the body’s normal response to stress. It is a part of the “fight-or-flight” response that happens when someone faces a real or perceived physical or emotional threat.
Anxiety can be useful because it makes sure that people are alert and aware in the face of danger. For some people, however, it can disrupt their everyday life.
Sometimes, anxiety can become overwhelming, which may cause unease, distress, or dread. When this is the case, doctors tend to recommend trying breathing exercises.
Experts often recommend breathing exercises as a way to cope with anxiety. Such exercises help people slow their heart rate and feel calm.
This article will outline five breathing exercises and how to do them. It will also look at other ways to deal with anxious feelings and explain when it might be a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional.
Deep breathing is simple but effective. People can do it anywhere, while sitting, standing up, or lying down.
To deep breathe, a person can:
- Relax the tummy.
- Place one hand just beneath the ribs.
- Breathe in slowly and deeply through the nose, noticing the hand rise.
- Breathe out through the mouth, noticing the hand fall.
The quieting response method combines deep breathing with visualization to help reduce stress and anxiety.
A person should first relax all the muscles in their face and shoulders and imagine having holes in the soles of their feet.
Then they can:
- Take a deep breath, visualizing the breath as hot air entering the body through the holes in the soles of the feet.
- Imagine the hot air flowing up the legs, through the tummy, and then filling the lungs.
- Relax each muscle as the hot air passes it.
- Breathe out slowly, imagining the air passing from the lungs back into the tummy, then the legs, before leaving the body through the holes in the soles of the feet.
- Repeat until calm.
Mindful breathing uses mindfulness to help people to focus on the here and now.
To practice mindful breathing, a person should sit or lie in a comfortable position with their eyes open or closed.
Then they can:
- Inhale through the nose until the tummy expands.
- Slowly let the breath out through the mouth.
- Once settled into the pattern, focus on the breath coming in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Notice the rise and fall of the tummy as the breaths come in and out.
- As thoughts come into the head, notice that they are there without judgment, then let them go and bring the attention back to the breathing.
- Carry on until feeling calm, then start to be aware of how the body and mind feel.
A person should start either sitting up or lying down. Then they can:
- Place one hand on the tummy and the other on the upper chest.
- Breathe in through the nose, focusing on the tummy rising.
- Breathe out through pursed lips, focusing on the tummy lowering.
- Repeat the cycle.
This technique is a quick and simple way for a person to relax anywhere.
A person should sit down with their back straight and the tip of their tongue on the back of their upper front teeth.
Then they can:
- Breathe out through the mouth, making a whooshing sound.
- Close the mouth and count to 4 while breathing in through the nose.
- Count to 7 while holding the breath.
- Count to 8 while breathing out through the mouth, making a whooshing sound.
- Inhale, then repeat three times.
Breathing exercises are just one way of managing anxiety.
People can also try things such as slowly counting to 10 or imagining a calming scene, such as a meadow or a beach.
Psychiatric medications can also help.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people can help themselves by:
- accepting that there are some things they cannot control
- doing their best rather than aiming for perfection
- learning what triggers their anxiety
- limiting their caffeine and alcohol intake
- trying only to eat well-balanced meals
- trying to get plenty of sleep
- getting some exercise every day
Some anxiety is perfectly normal and not a cause for concern.
However, some people may find that anxiety can be overwhelming, or that they are becoming more anxious. Feeling like this may indicate that the person has an anxiety disorder.
Someone should speak to a doctor if they are:
- having frequent or excessive anxiety that gets in the way of their daily activities
- dealing with anxiety by misusing drugs or alcohol
- noticing changes in their sleeping, eating, or personal hygiene habits
- having irrational fears
- self-harming or thinking about self-harming
- having suicidal thoughts
- feeling out of control
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes. It is a natural part of the body’s reaction to threats or danger.
Breathing exercises are one of the best ways to deal with anxiety. Most breathing exercises are straightforward, and people can do them anywhere.
Some other ways to cope with feelings of anxiety include slowly counting to 10 or imagining a calming scene.
People who find that they experience frequent or excessive anxiety that interferes with their everyday life should speak to a doctor about psychotherapy or medication.