Breathwork is a term used to describe the mindfulness practice of conscious breathing. During breathwork, we actively control the length and depth of our inhales and exhales, to have an effect on our emotional and physical state.
Breathwork is an active form of meditation with many health benefits including reduced stress and anxiety, better sleep, and boosted mood. In this article, we will review how breathing and anxiety are related by covering the following:
It’s a common misconception that anxiety takes place exclusively inside the mind. How often does someone try to help reduce anxiety by telling us to “think positively”? In reality, the stress response has much more to do with our entire body, and harnessing the power of the breath can be one of the most effective ways to restore relaxation.
Anxiety is a general feeling of unease in the body that can feel similar to worry or fear. It is a feeling of apprehension about future events, and can range from mild to severe. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1 in 13 people struggle with anxiety around the world. More scientifically, anxiety is a response to stress by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and a component of the larger “fight-or-flight” response. When the brain detects danger, the body instantly launches into a series of physiological and hormonal responses to aid in fighting or escaping a perilous situation.
While this evolutionary trait saved our ancestors from many predators and natural disasters, our bodies unfortunately did not develop the ability to differentiate between a giant black bear and an uncomfortable conversation on the horizon. This is where mindfulness practices, such as breathing exercises, can be helpful in counteracting these primal instincts.
The ANS is a vast series of self-regulating functions that keep us alive, including vasomotor activity, (i.e. blood vessel dilation) cardiac regulation, the digestive system, urination, sexual arousal, and the respiratory system. Anxiety can have an effect on most of these functions. However, the most immediately noticeable symptom to someone experiencing anxiety is likely to be a sudden change in breathing pattern, which can be the first indicator that something is wrong. Research has shown that anxiety can cause you to experience shortness of breath, faster breathing or hyperventilation, chest tightness, or breathlessness/the feeling of suffocation.
The ANS is made up mostly of involuntary functions. Needless to say, one can’t consciously decide to start digesting their food differently or will their blood vessels to dilate. The one notable exception to this is, of course, breathing. The respiratory system is our one point of access into the ANS and while it does function independently, we can also take the wheel and breathe at our own speed and depth.
Our wilful control of the amount of oxygen we take in, and carbon dioxide we expel, means that we can consciously turn on our parasympathetic nervous system. In doing so, we can use the breath to send a signal that we aren’t actually in danger and allow our rest and relaxation response to dominate over our stress response. Breathwork has the power to impact our digestion, heart rate, sexual libido and blood pressure, among others.
Healing anxiety through breathwork has been practiced all over the globe for thousands of years. Some methods are simple, while others are much more nuanced. Here are a few easy breathing techniques for anxiety that serve as a great starting point.
This is the one most people are likely to already be familiar with- “Just take a few deep breaths”, is something we’ve heard before, and it’s good advice. However, there are a few more specific details in this powerful breathing technique for anxiety.
Watch a demonstration on how to do deep belly breathing.
Learn more about the deep belly breathing technique.
This method, also known as square breathing, is a widely favoured form of breathwork. In case you needed proof of how it can quickly reduce stress, Navy SEALs, police officers and nurses all commonly implement box breathing for anxiety as part of their training, and it’s safe to say that these are positions in which knowing how to manage anxiety is key. It’s also very simple to practice and can be done anywhere, at any time. Just follow these steps.
Watch this visual guide on the box breathing relaxation technique.
Learn more about box breathing and its benefits.
The Buteyko method of breathwork is named after Ukrainian Doctor Konstantin Buteyko, who based his work on the idea that most people were suffering from over-breathing. Whereas many people’s belief would be that taking in more oxygen equals better breathing and better health, Buteyko’s methods are founded in gently reducing one’s oxygen intake to improve the body’s ability to absorb oxygen, prevent hyperventilation and trigger the “rest and digest” state of the ANS by mimicking our breath patterns when we’re at rest.
There are several exercises within the Buteyko method, and all begin from the principle that we should all be nose-breathing, whether awake or asleep. To practice the Buteyko method:
Watch this 10 minute guided Buteyko breathwork video.
Learn more about the Buteyko breathing technique.
Yoga classes are many peoples’ introduction to using breathing techniques to adjust the body or mind, whether it’s for reducing anxiety, improving physical performance or as a form of meditation. Yogic breathing is also known as “Pranayama;” In Sanskrit, “prana” means spirit or life energy and “yama” means control. There are several techniques within pranayama that are used to find calm and mental clarity, and each can have multiple benefits beyond just alleviating anxiety.
Watch these 3 yoga breathing exercises for anxiety.
Ujjayi, or Victorious breath is the practice of breathing through your nose and constricting your throat enough that the breath makes a whooshing sound. This practice does double duty in that it both slows down the breath, and the engaged muscle activity along with the sound helps one focus in on the breath, driving out distractions and achieving a meditative state.
Watch this step-by-step video on Victorious breathing.
Learn more about the benefits of Ujjayi breathing.
Bhramari, or Humming Bee Breath is a meditative breathing technique in which one closes their eyes, inhales and gently plugs their ears with their fingers as they loudly hum on the exhalation. The cranial vibrations are believed to be physically soothing, while the sensory deprivation and noise from humming is helpful in drowning out any intrusive thoughts.
Watch this tutorial on how to do Bhramari breathwork.
Learn more about the practice of Bhramari breathing technique.
Alternate Nostril Breathing is the practice of gently plugging one nostril at a time while slowly inhaling and exhaling. It takes the benefits of nasal breathing one step further, while aiding in unblocking of the sinuses, all while helping the practitioner focus their intention on the breath.
The basic technique is:
Watch our guided video on alternate nostril breathing.
Learn more about how to do alternate nostril breathing.
Simsahana, or Lion’s Breath, possesses unique benefits for alleviating anxiety; stress can cause a lot of muscle tension throughout the body, but it’s easy to forget about how we’re clenching the jaw, pursing the lips or furrowing the brow. Releasing some of this tension can provide relaxation as well as alleviate headaches. Plus, it has the added benefit of looking and feeling a bit silly, so we remember not to take things so seriously for a moment. To practice Lion’s Breath:
Watch this demonstration on the Lion’s Breath technique.
Learn more about practicing Lion’s Breath.
Alternate nostril breathing is a great exercise for relieving anxiety, but it can be a little confusing to follow the first time. If you would like some help using this technique, check out our guided breathwork video below:
Check out these other guided breathing videos on YouTube:
With the help of technology, there’s never been a better time to see what breathwork can do for you.
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MyLife is an app created by Stop, Breathe & Think, an Emotional Wellness platform created by Julie Campistron and Jamie Price. MyLife is among the best breathing apps for anxiety, providing short mindfulness activities such as journaling, meditation, yoga and breathwork, all attuned to however you’re feeling on that day. It even has breathing exercises for anxiety for kids, so that the entire family can join in. MyLife is available to download from Apple or Google Play.
Best for: Building a daily wellness practice.
Features: Breathing exercises, personalized meditation recommendations, mood tracker, and sleeping exercises.
Cost: Free to access basic features; subscriptions available for $9.99/month, $58.99/year, or a $249.99 one-time payment.
Calm is perhaps the most well-known of the Wellness apps, due to its extensive marketing and roster of celebrities lending their voice to the app. Described as a “Mental Fitness” app, it provides many options for guided meditations, sleep stories and master classes, all based around mindfulness and improving one’s sleep.
Best for: Using mindfulness for relaxation.
Features: Daily 10-minute meditations, 7-day and 21-day mindfulness programs, mindful stretching and movement, and breathing exercises.
Cost: Free to access basic features; subscriptions available for $14.99/month, $69.99/year, or a $399.99 one-time payment.
Though the practice of breathwork for anxiety goes back thousands of years, scientists are continuing to make discoveries about all of the intricate ways in which breathing techniques can affect the body. The benefits of breathwork are ultimately rooted in what we began by discussing, the Autonomic Nervous System.
When stress or panic sets in, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS or “fight-or-flight”) takes over, and while this is useful for escaping immediate danger, the toll it takes on our bodies is substantial. Hormones flood our system, we receive a big shot of glucose into our bloodstream, our heart rate increases and our blood vessels constrict, causing blood pressure to spike.
Luckily, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, “rest-and-digest”) is designed to come to the rescue. A 2005 study published by AHA Journals found that slow breathing helps lower blood pressure, which also helps promote increased digestive activity, and levelled out blood glucose and insulin levels.
Problems arise when our daily lives are so stressful that we’re constantly in a state of “fight-or-flight” and the “rest-and-digest” never gets a chance to take over. The negative impact on our bodies from constant hormonal and glucose spikes, high blood pressure, and lack of sleep can be dangerous, and even deadly. This is where breathwork comes in.
Implementing breathwork is a method of reverse-engineering the parasympathetic nervous system into action via our gateway into the autonomic nervous system—the breath. A 2018 study from the National Library of Medicine found that breathing helps us to regain control of our thoughts and our ability to focus on other things. By controlling the way we breathe, we send a signal to our brain that the danger is gone, and the PNS can start counteracting the damage done by the SNS.
Implementing this practice into our daily lives can result in better sleep and weight loss due to the leveling out of hormones, insulin and blood glucose, better GI activity due to the SNS no longer inhibiting digestion, and many other benefits.
Ready to feel the benefits of breathwork for anxiety relief? Try this short breathwork exercise to reset your nervous system now to feel more relaxed for the rest of the day.
Despite breathwork for anxiety being a common practice for most of human history, scientific studies have only recently begun exploring its concrete medical benefits; here are a few examples of their findings.
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