You feel anxious, you feel anxious about your anxiety, and then your anxiety spirals out of control. Your body tenses up, and worry—whether it’s about one specific thing or all the things at once—floods your mind. What can you do to put yourself back in the driver’s seat?
Soothing your body and mind when you’re in an anxious state is difficult, but we’ve all heard the old adage, “Take a deep breath.” It sounds so easy. Of course it proves harder when overwhelming anxiety is preventing us from enjoying social events, being productive, or thinking clearly. And if you first heard that calm command in childhood, you may wonder if it even holds any weight in adult life, where the stakes are higher and comfort (at the office, in the grocery store, or during a night out) is less readily available.
Still, a 2015 study suggests that self-regulation of breathing should be considered as a primary treatment not only for anxiety, but for stress, depression, and certain emotional disorders as well. Another article, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that certain breathing techniques that facilitate awareness and breath control can “benefit both physical and mental health.”
The fantastic thing about many breathing exercises is that they take only minutes and have a near-immediate effect, which means they can be done during your lunch break or in a discreet space during a stressful event.
We recommend beginning by trying these exercises in a peaceful place: on a blanket or mat on the floor, in your bed before you’re about to sleep, or in a comfortable chair. If you can, start by practicing these techniques in a quiet area, free from distractions and disturbances so you’ll be ready to use them confidently in less-than-ideal surroundings if the need arises.
These exercises are simple, but they might seem counterintuitive at first because most of us are used to breathing without being conscious of our breath. If you forget to count, or you don’t feel like you’re doing it right, don’t worry: The point isn’t to do the exercises perfectly but to afford yourself a sense of calm.
1. Counting Breaths
Does anxiety keep you up at night? Me too.
Instead of counting sheep, consider counting your breaths. This is an excellent opportunity to focus on regulating your breath while preparing your body for the most restorative kind of relaxation: sleep. Breathe in and out of your nose slowly. Count to one. Inhale and exhale again. Count to two. Do this 10 times, and then start at one again.
The key during this breathing exercise is to slow it down. Don’t count as fast as you can, and don’t pump your breaths in and out too quickly.
2. The 4-7-8 Method
When your anxiety is mounting, temporarily distracting yourself can be a great coping mechanism.
All breathing exercises can distract you from your increasing anxiety because you’ll be focusing on your breath and not your stressors. This particular exercise requires a bit of concentration: enough to distract you, but not enough to be difficult.
Breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of seven, and breathe out for a count of eight. Do this set three times in total.
To make the most out of this exercise, consider the importance of breathing with your diaphragm, a practice you can learn about with this resource from the Cleveland Clinic.
3. Deep Breathing
When we’re in panic mode, we take quick, shallow breaths instead of slow, deep breaths. Change it up by taking slow breaths that feel like they fill your entire ribcage up with air.
Once again, breathe in deeply through your nose. Notice the air as it fills your nose, then your throat area, then your chest, then your belly. Allow your chest and belly to inflate and deflate like a balloon. Do this for a count of five or 10 breaths.
Breathing is something we literally do all the time. We take it for granted and often we don’t realize how powerful it can be. When it comes to anxiety, breathing can be one of the most useful natural tools we have in improving our relationships with both our bodies and our minds.