Though our breath is with us always, it is easy to forget just how many ways it can be manipulated. By taking short, shallow breath or holding the breath to the very edge of our capacity, we can create a stress response with all its corresponding physiology and fearful thoughts. Conversely, by elongating the breath, we invite a relaxation response, calming the body and quieting the anxious mind.
Breathwork is a core component of cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychotherapy that’s been shown across studies to be useful for a variety of anxiety disorders. It is also an essential feature of yoga, an alternative approach to decrease anxiety that is currently being studied for use in people with full-fledged anxiety disorders like GAD.
Re-learning to breathe in the ways described below can occur at any and every age. For older adults with anxiety, these techniques may offer relief in the comfort of home…and the comfort of a seated position. For kids, these techniques can be made playful while helping them manage anxiety. And the best news: once you’ve got the hang of it, you can practice these three kinds of breath nearly anywhere, anytime.
1. Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
Without realizing it, many people are in the habit of taking incomplete breaths that start and end in the ribcage or of holding the chest, diaphragm, and abdomen rigid while breathing. This prevents a full breath from happening, and its relaxing properties taking effect. A complete breath uses all of the respiratory muscles, expands the lungs and diaphragm in all directions, and enables a more complete exhale, releasing unnecessary tension.
- Find a comfortable position, either sitting down or lying on your back. If you are sitting down, make sure to lift up through the crown of your head to keep your back straight, and to drop your shoulders to let go of any tension they might be holding.
- Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Take a few breaths as you normally would. Notice if it is your belly or your chest that rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation.
- Take additional breaths with an emphasis on breathing more deeply so that you can feel your belly push out on your hand with every inbreath and retract with every outbreath. This should decrease the amount of movement of the hand that sits on your chest.
- Continue to take deep breaths, concentrating on primarily moving your belly. Once you get the hang of this type of breath, you may choose to lower your hands onto your knees for the duration of the exercise.
- If you wish to deepen the breath, you might try counting to three on the inhale. If you wish to focus on releasing tension, you might think or say the word “relax” with every exhale.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Breathing through the mouth tells the body that it is in a state of stress; nostril breathing, however, tells the body that it is in a state of equilibrium. As the nervous system readjusts from an anxious to calmer state, unhelpful thought patterns tend to ease and become more manageable. This exercise, sometimes used by athletes, also can help with feeling more balanced and focused.
- Sit comfortably.
- Curl the fingers of one of your hands and bring it to your nose. You will alternate between an active thumb and ring finger, while the other fingers stay relaxed.
- Start by resting your thumb against the right nostril to open up the left nostril. Inhale gently.
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale completely on the right side.
- Inhale again on the right side.
- Close the ride side with your thumb, and release the ring finger and left nostril.
- Inhale again on the left side, exhale left, inhale right, exhale right, and so on.
- Alternate back and forth this way for up to 10 breath cycles. When you release back to normal breathing, attend to changes in your heart rate and your mindset.
3. Bumblebee Breathing
This type of breath derives its name from the bumblebee because one of its core features is the humming sound created. This sound can soothe a spinning or racing mind and encourage relaxation. It can be used as part of a regular daily breathwork practice or as on-the-spot calming strategy.
Because of the buzzing sound that you will create, this might not be the kind of practice that you do in total public. Instead, if you are out somewhere and begin to experience anxiety, look for a semi-private or private spot – your parked car, an empty bench on a quieter city block, or a foyer to a storefront perhaps – before getting started.
- Sit or stand comfortably, lifting up from the crown of your head with an elongated back and relaxed shoulders.
- Take a few natural breaths.
- Close your eyes or lower your gaze, depending on where you are and what you might find most calming and least distracting.
- Lightly seal your lips and inhale through both nostrils.
- Exhale, making the sound of the letter ‘M.’ This creates a humming or buzzing sound effect.
- Sustain the sound through a full exhalation, until you need to inhale again. Do not force the breath beyond your capacity – either on the inhalation or the exhalation – as this can undo the breath’s calming intention.
- Repeat as described above, inhaling through both nostrils, and humming or buzzing like a bumblebee as you exhale. You can practice this for as long as it feels good or until the calming effect is achieved.