For someone experiencing anxiety, it can feel like a deep sandpit pulling them deeper and deeper into their worst fears. Dark thoughts swirl, logic grows murkier, and breathing gets more erratic. If anxious thoughts and emotions continue, they can spin out of control into a full-on panic attack. Luckily, learning a handful of breathing techniques can help calm your anxieties before they become overwhelming.
When you’re experiencing an overload of anxiety, taking a few minutes to focus on your breath can help calm your heart rate, clear your mind, and return you to baseline before. These techniques are well researched by psychologists and actively implemented to help improve the mental health of our society. They can help you too.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through 4 effective breathing techniques that can help calm your anxieties. They’re taken from both therapeutic practices and yoga. These breathing exercises have been used for years to help anxious patients ground their emotions and experience more calmness.
Somato respiratory integration (SRI)
Somato respiratory integration (SRI) is a set of 12 different breathing exercises that tap into the natural rhythm of your body. They can be performed alone or with a group. SRI breathing exercises help decrease anxiety by making you feel more in your body. Each exercise involves placing your hands on different areas of your body that feel connected or disconnected.
From there, different breathing patterns are performed. There are certain audible phrases that you say throughout parts of these exercises. They are meant to act as powerful mantras that empower you to break through old, limiting beliefs and patterns in your life. Typically, people perform 1-2 exercises at a time. If you’ve ever felt ‘stuck’ in life, these powerful breathing exercises can help provide the clarity that you need to make that change you’ve been yearning to make.
Certain SRI exercises are great for anxiety because they involve fast-paced breathing patterns into areas of our body when we feel unloved or unsafe. This high rate of breathing has been shown to help people make profound emotional breakthroughs.
Alternate nostril breathing
This breathing technique is commonly recommended by therapists to help patients focus their attention and lower their heart rates. It’s well acknowledged by psychologists that anxiety can trigger exacerbated breathing patterns and raise your heart rate, sending a flood of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream. If not calmed quickly, you can experience a panic attack.
Alternate nostril breathing helps calm your body’s overload response by slowing your breathing and forcing you to focus on alternating patterns. To perform this technique, follow these steps:
- Using your index finger, close your left nostril.
- Breathe in through your right nostril for the count of five.
- Uncover your left nostril and close your right nostril using the same index finger.
- Breathe out through your left nostril for the count of five.
- Continue breathing in and out by alternating your nostrils.
- Repeat until you feel yourself calm down and your heart rate has dropped.
This technique can take as long as ten minutes to completely lower your heart rate but the alternating pattern of moving your finger from one nostril to the other will help focus your attention and prevent spiraling thoughts.
Kapalabhati breathing (breath of fire)
This next breathing technique comes from Kundalini yoga and is designed to quickly refocus your breathing pattern. Although yoga is often misconstrued as an elaborate stretching system, it relies on well-developed breathing techniques that help maintain a constant and steady stream of air into your lungs.
Kapalabhati breathing, or breath of fire, involves quickly and forcefully expelling air from your lungs while passively inhaling. Think of it as the inverse of hyperventilating. This is especially effective for anyone experiencing anxiety since anxiety attacks often cause people to hyperventilate.
To perform the technique, you must first sit on your knees or in a cross-legged position. Next, hold your hands together in a ball and place them in your lap. With force, push all of the air from your lungs in a single quick breath by squeezing your diaphragm and blowing it out from your nose. Then relax your diaphragm to passively allow air back into your nostrils and lungs. Do not purposefully inhale.
You can continue to push air from your lungs at a rate of one exhale per second. After each contraction, allow your diaphragm to quickly relax and naturally inhale more oxygen. Continue bursting air from your nostrils for at least 30 exhales. Allow your breathing to normalize after 30 exhales.
This technique is especially powerful because it doesn’t allow for variation in your breathing. Your body will naturally inhale the right amount of oxygen, preventing hyperventilation. It’s quite aggressive, helping to shake you from your swirling dark thoughts.
‘5 in, 8 out’ Breathing
This final technique is designed to purposefully slow your breathing rate. It’s much easier than the other two techniques but requires steadier breath control. Essentially, this technique helps you slow your breathing to just three breaths a minute. With fewer breaths, you’ll also slow your heart rate and reduce anxieties.
To perform the technique, follow these steps:
- Close your eyes and inhale for the count of 5.
- After you reach 5, hold your breath for another 5 seconds.
- Slowly exhale for the count of 8.
- After you reach 8, hold your breath for another 5 seconds, for a total inhale/exhale pattern of 23 seconds.
- Repeat the technique 5 times to completely slow your breathing rate.
This technique is magical for its simplicity and can be performed just about anywhere at any time of the day.
Anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life. You are not alone, and the universe is supporting you. Just a few simple breathing techniques throughout the day can keep you focused and calm, no matter what happens. Give these techniques a try and take control of your mind and body today.
Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health and well-being.