On Tuesday, we posted about the benefits of visualization techniques for anxiety relief. One of the common threads between the techniques we discussed is that each begins with choosing a quiet, comfortable spot and taking a few deep, calming breaths. This sets the stage for practicing the visualization. But did you know that breathing itself can be one of the most effective ways to relieve anxiety? Research has shown that breathing exercises can have an immediate calming effect. If you’re looking for a simple, drug-free and fast way to calm down, I highly recommend learning a few easy deep breathing exercises for anxiety.
Breathing for Anxiety Relief: The Basics
In yoga, there is a heavy influence on a type of breath work called “pranayama,” which means, quite literally, “the control of the life force.” This underscores just how important and powerful breath is as a tool for influencing our awareness.
Breathing may be an involuntary action, but like most of the things we do in our lives, we benefit more when we perform this action mindfully. Mindful deep breathing exercises confer some pretty amazing benefits to those who practice them – less anxiety, happier mood, and more energy, to sum it up briefly. But if we take an in-depth look, the benefits go beyond the emotional and are actually quite remarkable.
Conscious breathing exercises have a great influence over our physiology. They can override the stress response and hormones that play a vital role in anxiety, which is why breathing exercises are great for managing anxiety symptoms. And as we know, there is a powerful connection between mind and body, so where our minds benefit, so do our physical bodies. A focus on breath can actually improve our immune systems, speed healing, and improve chronic health conditions.
The Science Behind Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
A focus on the breath has been central to Buddhist and yogic traditions for thousands of years. Practitioners use breath work as a core part of meditation; it allows them to achieve what they believe is a higher level of consciousness, or enlightenment.
Today, modern science supports this ancient wisdom, with countless studies highlighting the benefits of breathing exercises on anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments.
“You can influence asthma; you can influence chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; you can influence heart failure,” said Mladen Golubic, a physician in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, in an piece from NPR. “There are studies that show that people who practice breathing exercises and have those conditions — they benefit.”
Deep breathing and breathing exercises are able to impact the body’s production of stress hormones, thereby helping to regulate how you respond to stress. When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for the stress response, also known as “fight or flight” — is in control. Slow, deep breathing causes the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxing effect, to take over. The body is literally unable to maintain the stress response while the parasympathetic nervous system dominates.
And less stress means better physical health. Studies have shown that patients who had to undergo medical procedures actually fared much better when they practiced breathing exercises. Doctors know that high anxiety levels can damage the immune system, but patients who focused on their breath had shorter hospital stays, faster recovery and healing times, and more success overall.
In 2010, a book by Herbert Benson, a Harvard researcher and founder of Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented even more amazing research on breathing’s benefits — namely, that it can actually influence gene expression. One of the big takeaways from the book, called Relaxation Revolution, is that we may be able to exert some level of control over our bodies on a cellular level, simply by placing a focus on our breath.
Learning to Breathe Better
Short, shallow breathing can produce unwanted effects similar to panic attack symptoms, such as chest tightness and pain, dizziness, a more rapid heartbeat, and even numbness or tingling sensations in the hands and feet. You should aim for full, deep “belly breathing” — not just when you’re practicing a specific breathing technique, but for as much of the time as you can.
There are a number of breathing exercises for anxiety that you can implement when you’re stressed or anxious. By using these techniques, combined with a general awareness of your breath throughout your day, you will eventually master one of the most effective anxiety-management strategies out there. Here are some simple and soothing breathing exercises to get you started:
– 3 Effective Anxiety Breathing Exercises – The Calm Clinic
– 6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less – Time Magazine
– Breathing: Three Exercises — DrWeil.com