Breathing exercises are an effective, quick, and easy solution for stress and anxiety relief. Proper breathing techniques work on anxiety on a physiological level by automatically slowing your heart rate. The effect on anxiety is almost instant. Because calm breathing is a physiological strategy, this approach is also virtually universally effective for getting anxiety relief. It's hard to go wrong with it!
Super Simple Meditation Breathing
Breathing techniques don't need to be complicated. This very simple breathing exercise is one of the most effective anxiety relief techniques. The only instruction is to breathe out slowly. The key is to focus on your out-breath and ignore your in-breath. Your in-breath will naturally lengthen when your out-breath is longer. Therefore, you don't need to actively focus on your in-breath at all.
Try to make your breath out slow, steady, and gentle. Some people find it useful to imagine they're blowing up a balloon, slowly and steadily and with the absolute least amount of force. Breathe out until the last drop of breath is released.
While you're slowly breathing, you can also scan your body for anywhere you're holding tension. Typical places are your lips, jaw, and shoulders. With each slow out-breath, allow the tension you're holding to flow out, and relaxation to flow in.
Deep Breathing or Slow Breathing?
People often think you should use deep breathing exercises for anxiety, but focusing on slow breathing is easier. Using a slow breathing approach is also less likely to induce deep breathing anxiety that many people feel when told to take depth breath.
Slow breathing is one of the best breathing techniques for panic attacks because it helps slow your heart rate, and naturally calms all of the body systems involved in your body's fight-flight-or-freeze response (what produces panic attacks). Because the basic slow breathing technique outlined above is very simple, you won't forget the instructions when you're in the midst of a panic attack.
A Slightly More Involved Breathing Exercise
If you'd like to learn several different meditation breathing techniques, you might consider trying alternate nostril breathing. This is also a very simple, natural breathing technique for managing stress and anxiety.
Close one nostril by placing your finders gently over it. Breathe out, then in, through the uncovered nostril. After each breath cycle, switch sides (a breath cycle is one out-breath and one in-breath). Do one out-breath, followed by one in-breath through each nostril, leading with your out-breath.
Other Stress Relief Methods That Utilize Breathing Techniques
Three other kinds of stress relief methods also utilize relaxing breathing—guided relaxation, meditation, and yoga. Yoga and meditation, in particular, are useful when you feel a sense of constant anxiety; they can help you break a habit of anxiety breathing because they increase your awareness of how you're breathing. Physical activity also naturally regulates your breathing, and is another option if breathing exercises aren't appealing to you. Simple guided meditations, around 10 minutes in length, are easy to find online and are not too time-consuming.
How Can You Tell If Breathing Exercises Are Working?
If you're someone who likes to measure your results, you can download a smartphone app to track your heart rate. These apps work by you placing your finger over your phone's camera; the app then uses the camera to measure your pulse. When you slow your breathing, your heart rate will naturally slow, and you'll notice your stress and anxiety reduce immediately.
Note that your heart rate will naturally speed up when you inhale and slow down when you exhale. Therefore, you'll see a pattern of variability when you're monitoring your heart rate with an app. If your heart rate is above 90 beats per minute when you're feeling anxious, you'll probably find it difficult to think and communicate clearly. Use one of the breathing techniques outlined above to bring it down below that level for instant anxiety relief.
Learn more in my book, The Anxiety Toolkit.