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How to Reduce Anxiety With Every Breath

Use these five principles to calm your nervous system.

Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock
Source: Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock

The breath is intimately tied to our emotions—it tends to be shallow and rapid when we’re excited or anxious, long and deep when we’re calm. That’s why at some point you’ve probably been told to “take a deep breath” when you’ve felt stressed and anxious, like before public speaking.

Breathing is closely connected with our nervous system. When we breathe in a particular way, we can engage the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system (the parasympathetic part) to soothe our minds and bodies.

I recently spoke with psychiatrist Dr. Suvrat Bhargave on the Think Act Be podcast about the connection between anxiety and the breath. He emphasized the value in using the breath to slow down our anxiety response, as he discusses in his recent book, A Moment of Insight.

“We have two main responses to anxiety and fear,” he said. “Our thoughts speed up, and our bodies speed up.” And while we may know on a rational level that our fears are probably unfounded, “it sure doesn’t feel like it,” said Dr. Bhargave. “It sure feels like something bad is about to happen right now. So you have to bring yourself back to a state of rest before you can then move forward and deal with being anxious.”

Maybe you’ve tried breath focus to calm yourself before, with little success. Take heart—in my clinical practice, I’ve found that there are more and less effective ways of managing anxiety with the breath, as has Dr. Bhargave. He noted that when he suggests deep breathing, some patients initially say, “Oh, I tried that, and it didn’t work.”

“It’s easy to believe when we’re highly anxious that ‘nothing has worked, and nothing is going to work,’” noted Dr. Bhargave. “That’s what anxiety wants you to believe—that you’re never going to be rid of it.”

However, he is undeterred. “Breathing is so essential to bringing yourself back to a state of homeostasis, back to a balance,” he said. “And my response is to say respectfully, ‘I promise you that you didn’t do it right—let’s do it again!’”

If you’ve had limited success with breath practice in the past, consider trying again with these principles in mind to make breathing as calming as possible:

Focus on the Breath, Not the Anxiety

Breathing for relaxation sometimes can backfire, especially when we’re focused on “if it’s working.” If we’re constantly monitoring our anxiety, our minds can override the parasympathetic response. Bring your attention to the breath as fully as possible. Feel the sensations of breathing, like the belly as it rises and falls, and notice the sound of the breath. Consider counting your breaths to give the mind less opportunity to focus on the anxiety.

Train Yourself to Associate the Breath With Relaxation

You can also repeat two words—one on the inhale and one on the exhale—as part of your breathing practice. This approach not only occupies your anxious mind but also conditions your mind and body to link those words to the parasympathetic response.

“Use the same two words every time,” suggested Dr. Bhargave, “because you’re conditioning your emotional being to respond to certain cues. And if you use the same words every time, then it will fall into place a little better each time.”

It doesn’t matter what the words are. Some examples are In … Out, or Just … Breathe—as long as they work for you. “You clearly don’t want to do the opposite,” laughed Dr. Bhargave, “like saying Oh … No.” Some people like the words to be humorous, like a child he worked with who chose Monkeys … Bananas. “It’s meant to calm you,” he said, “and a little bit of chuckling took the edge off his anxiety.”

You might prefer words that have more significance. “They might mean something really powerful to you,” said Dr. Bhargave, as his do for him. “I chose my two words because, to me, they symbolize a lot of things. I don’t have to have a full conversation with myself about what it is that it symbolizes, because I know what those two words mean to me. And so it strikes a chord within the deepest part of me.”

Fill Your Lungs

If you’re chronically anxious, you’ve likely gotten into the habit of taking short, shallow breaths. It takes practice to breathe beyond what we’re used to. “It has to be a true deep breath,” said Dr. Bhargave, “the kind where your body posture changes when you inhale, and it changes again on the exhale.”

When you inhale, feel your low belly expand first, then your ribs, and finally your chest. Make the breath deep without straining—it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. Instead, feel the breath like a wave that rises, gently reaches a crest, and then slowly falls again.

Extend the Exhale

Effective breathing is not just deep; it’s also slow. The most soothing part of breathing is when you exhale, so make this part of the breath cycle as long as possible. At first, you might breathe in for about two seconds and exhale for four, pausing for a couple of beats before inhaling again. Over time you can extend this pattern to four-eight-four, which will correspond to about four breaths per minute—a very calming pace.

Make It Your Own

The most important aspect of breath practice is finding a technique that works for you. There’s nothing magical about counting to a certain number on the exhale or finding the “right” words to say as you breathe in and out. While there are certain principles for using the breath to manage anxiety, there are many variations that can be effective. Experiment with different approaches to find what resonates with you.

“Deep breathing is readily accessible and really reliable when you’re feeling anxious as a way of getting back to baseline before you then act,” Dr. Bhargave said. “It’s the most tried and true method for being able to bring your body back down again.”

The full conversation with Dr. Suvrat Bhargave is available here: “How to Discover the Truth of Who You Are.