We’ve all struggled with moments of anxiety – the nervousness you might experience before a test, during a speech or presentation, or on a first date. However, experiencing anxiety on a regular basis can affect our health (physically, mentally and emotionally). We often seek out ways to escape these feelings, but that doesn’t always solve the root of the issue.
The best way to regulate your nervous system is to send a signal to your body that you are safe. We do this by using the breath.
One of the easiest breath techniques to use is known as deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing can help you activate your body’s relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system), and counteract the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). This in turn reduces feelings of anxiety.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to practice deep breathing for anxiety:
Choose a calm environment where you can sit or lie down without distractions. Find a comfortable position, and close your eyes (or keep them open)! Ground yourself into the present moment by doing a quick body scan. Focus on each part of your body – head to toe. If you’re sitting up, ground your feet into the earth and repeat the mantra “I am safe”, if you’d like. Notice what your body feels like and where the tension is being held.
Begin to pay attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it at first – just notice and accept how it is. Next, take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand as you inhale. You should feel the breath filling your diaphragm rather than your chest. Do this cleansing breath 3 times. Try to have a slow, extended exhale. Having a slower exhale regulates your nervous system and releases feelings of anxiety. With each exhale, imagine your body letting go of any tension or anxiety that you’re holding onto.
Start counting your breaths to help maintain focus. Inhale deeply and silently count “one.” Exhale fully and count “two.” Continue this pattern until you reach a count of ten, and then start again from one. If your mind wanders (and it WILL wander), gently bring your attention back to your breath and continue counting.
You can always combine any breathwork with visualization to make it even more powerful. As you breathe in, imagine inhaling positive energy, love, peace, or calmness. Imagine your safe place. As you exhale, visualize releasing any tension, stress, or anxious thoughts. This takes practice, especially if you aren’t listening to any guided audio. Be patient with it, and give yourself some credit for showing up.
Deep breathing or meditating might feel extremely difficult if you’re having acute high levels of anxiety. Part of letting go of anxiety is accepting it. Think about it: have you ever tried to avoid something like a thought or a situation, and low and behold that exact thing seemingly shows up to haunt you? Yep. Running from or trying to avoid anything only makes it more apparent and creates a stronger pull. Try instead, to just notice and sit with whatever feelings are there. Get curious about the anxiety. Ask yourself: what are these emotions telling me? What’s the message? And is it true or helpful?
If you want the breath to be a helpful tool in managing your anxiety, it’s beneficial to practice it daily. While doing breathwork for anxiety is definitely helpful in the moment, and you can immediately notice a shift, it is still important to build the habit of having it as your go-to (much like the habit we’ve built of scrolling our phones or reaching for the booze when we want to escape negative emotions). Set aside a few minutes each day to practice deep breathing. It could also be a great addition to your morning or evening routine. With regular practice, you can develop a sense of calmness and better manage anxiety over time.
Remember, deep breathing is just one breathwork technique among many strategies and practices that can assist in reducing anxiety. Exploring other self-care practices, such as exercise, mindfulness meditation, and healthy lifestyle habits, can also contribute to overall well-being. If you’re interested in working together to use a holistic approach to managing your anxiety, you can explore my 1:1 holistic coaching and breathwork sessions here.