Breathing for Anxiety: 5 Exercises You Need To Know


Let’s start things off by taking a nice deep breath. Inhale through your nose, filling your lungs fully. Relax your shoulders, straighten your back. Release the tension and stress you’re holding in your body as you exhale through your mouth. Continue breathing in this way for a few moments more.

Did that feel good? I know it did for me. Now that we’re all calm, let’s explore why you might have been feeling tension in the first place.

Tension can come from stress, tiredness, anxiety, and a myriad of other causes. The biggest one I struggle with is anxiety, so that’s what I’ll focus on today. These breathing techniques can be used to calm any of the emotions that give you tension, though.

Control your breathing, Control Anxiety

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, unease, or nervousness. It’s our body’s response to stress. Anxiety can be related to an upcoming event like a new job, a test, or another big event, but can also come from feeling uncertain about the future or other situations.

I would say that almost all people will experience some form of anxiety during their lifetime. Some of us will experience longer and more serious periods of recurring anxiety due to anxiety conditions. Lucky us!

I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. My parents got divorced when I was young, and it made me a worrier. I was always worried about something, and with that worry came anxiety. It followed me into my teenage and adult years, and it’s still something I struggle with daily. It’s primarily focused around social situations, and if it gets bad enough, I’ll have a panic attack.

Anxiety Is Different For Everyone

My husband on the other hand, is not a worrier. When we first started dating, he didn’t quite understand why I was anxious all the time. I still remember him saying he related anxiety to “The feeling on Christmas Eve of waiting for the next day to come.” For him, anxiousness was linked with excitement. For me, it was linked with fear.

Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. It cues our body to have a fight or flight response. Without anxiety we wouldn’t know how to respond properly to unsafe situations. If someone pulls a knife on us, we need our brain to yell “DANGER”, and not “That’s a pretty cool knife.”

When you have an overactive anxiety response, life can be exhausting. You never know what your triggers will be, and sometimes you’re just anxious without anything causing it. Finding the source can be tricky, and finding relief is harder.

How To Deal

There’s a multitude of ways you can deal with anxiety: medications, counseling, exercise, exposure therapy, etc. Everyone has a different solution. A frequent one that pops up is meditation. Meditation IS a great tool, but it can be hard to get started and make time for a routine.

A great way to ease into mediation is breath work. It’s easy, it doesn’t need any equipment, and it can be done anywhere, anytime. The right breathing techniques can even calm down a panic attack.

Breathing is the only automatic function in our that we can control. You can’t change the rhythm of your heart, but you can change your breathing patterns. It seems like a simple thing, you breath everyday without thinking about it after all. But harnessing the power of your breathing is an amazing tool.

Where Do I Start

So how do you get started? I would suggest practicing the following exercises when you aren’t anxious (or minimally anxious). It’ll be easier to remember the routine while you’re stressed or panicking if you’re already comfortable with the pattern from practicing. I’ve listed 5 exercises below, so play around with what works best for you. You may find that you like some more than others.

Meditation usually requires a quiet spot on your own. That’s not necessary for breath work, but it can be a bit easier to focus if there’s minimal distractions. I do some of these exercises with my kids running around, or even in public. Since my anxiety picks up in social settings, it’s important to be able to tune out the noise around me and focus on my breathing, but that might not be easy in the beginning.

How To Prepare

For each of these exercises you can choose what position you’re in. Some prefer to lay down on a soft surface such as a bed or couch. Standing or sitting in a comfortable chair works as well.

If sitting, it’s a good idea to practice good posture as you breath. Point the crown of your head to the ceiling, spine straight, and shoulders back. Closing your eyes is a great way to help you focus inwards, but if you’re more comfortable with your eyes open you can certainly leave them that way. You do you.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The first method we’ll work with is diaphragmatic breathing. My psychiatrist was the one who taught me this, and it’s been scientifically proven to help with panic, anxiety, and stress. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn can combat your fight or flight response. It’s a good building block for the other methods listed below, so start here first. It can be beneficial to practice this one laying down the first few times.

Start by getting comfortable wherever you are. Place one hand over your stomach right below your ribcage, and the other hand on your chest. Take a minute to feel how each hand moves as you inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. Inhale slowly through your nose and feel the hand on your stomach move outwards. You want to keep your chest as still as possible, so that your hand there doesn’t move. After you have filled your lungs deeply, let your stomach muscles contract and push your breath through pursed lips in a controlled manner. The hand on your stomach should fall as your lungs empty, but your chest should stay still. Repeat for several more breaths.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Square Breathing

This one is a good exercise that has a bit of visualization to it as well. It’s very popular because it’s easy to remember and simple to practice. You’ll need to count for this one, so it might take a few run throughs to get your breath to match the count. Don’t speed through it, think “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” not “1234”. You can envision the square in your mind, or trace it on your lap with your finger. To start, find your comfy position as before and begin below.

Focus on your breath for a few seconds. After you’ve focused, envision a square with 4 equal sides. Breathe in through your nose on a count of 4, while taking this breath envision tracing the top of the square from left to right. Once you’ve inhaled fully, hold your breath for a count of 4. Mentally trace the right edge of the square from top to bottom. Exhale through pursed lips for a count of 4. Follow the bottom of the square from right to left. Finally hold your breath again for a count of 4, tracing the left edge of the square from bottom to top, reaching the beginning spot. Continue breathing, counting, and tracing as many times as you like.

Diagram of Square Breathing

Finger Breathing

Personally, I love finger breathing, and I especially love it for my son. At 2.5 years old we’re solidly in the “terrible two’s”. There’s a lot of big emotions going on, so I’ve taught him this technique to calm him down in the middle of being overwhelmed. It has a physical, grounding touch to it. There’s two ways to do it. I’ll explain the method I use with him in detail, and a less conspicuous way after.

Place your left index finger (or right if you’re a lefty) at the outside base of your right pinky. While taking an inhale through your nose, slowly trace the outside of your pinky upwards with your left index finger. Pause for a count when you get to the stop of your pinky. Exhale slowly through your mouth while tracing down the inside of your pinky to the base of your ring finger. Pause for a count at the bottom of your pinky and ring finger, then inhale tracing your finger upwards on your ring finger. Pause for a count at your ring finger tip, then exhale while tracing down your ring finger towards the base of your middle finger. Continue in this pattern of inhaling upwards, pausing, exhaling downwards, and pausing until you’ve traced each side of each finger, and down to the outer base of your thumb. If you are still stressed you can trace backwards in the opposite direction until you reach the base of your pinky again.

Diagram of Finger Breathing

I use my finger to trace my son’s hand, but if you’re wanting to do this on your own you can just use one hand.

Place your thumb at the base of your pinky on the same hand. Inhale upwards as before, but just run your finger up the inside of your pinky finger instead of tracing the outside. Pause at the top, then exhale as you run your thumb back down the inside of your pinky finger. Do the same movement to your ring, middle, and index finger, inhaling on the upstroke, pausing at the top, exhaling on the down stroke, and pausing at the bottom.

Long Exhale

Like diaphragmatic breathing, lengthening your exhale has been shown to stimulate your vagus nerve. This calms your fight or flight response, which is usually your source of trouble in a panic attack. Many breathing techniques utilize a long exhale, so it’s good to have this skill in your tool box. At first, at least for me, this was pretty hard to do. I’d exhale quickly at the beginning, then “run out” of air before I finished the count. I eventually found that releasing my breath slowly ensured I took advantage of the full exhale count.

Make yourself comfortable in a position you can sustain. Observe your normal breathing for a few moments. Inhale normally through your nose, taking time to fill your lungs completely. Purse your lips by puckering them, then exhale as slowly as you can. Feel your lungs empty completely, then inhale through your nose at a normal pace. Don’t worry about counting the first few times you practice this method. Just keep trying to lengthen your exhale so that it’s longer than your inhale. Repeat as desired.

4-7-8 Breathing

The final method I’ll talk about is 4-7-8 breathing. Like the square breathing it involves counting as you inhale, hold, and exhale. It takes advantage of a long exhale, and is a good next step once you’ve worked on that skill. Since you’re counting, you’re sure that your exhale is twice the length of your inhale. This is the optimum ratio for calming anxiety. Remember to count at an even tempo, and not rush through it.

To start, exhale forcefully through in a “woosh”, clearing your lungs of air. Close your mouth, and inhale through your nose at a count of 4, feeling your lungs expand. Hold onto your breath for a count of seven. Exhale through pursed lips in a controlled manner for a count of 8, emptying your lungs fully. Starting with another inhale, repeat this sequence.

Finishing Up

Hopefully one (or all) of these techniques will be beneficial to you. Even though you breathe daily, breath work is a skill just like any other. You didn’t hop on a bike for the first time and take off. You practiced and gave yourself time to master riding. Keep working at it little by little, and you’ll be a pro in no time.

If you want to explore more breath work, meditation, or mindfulness, I’d highly suggest the book Practicing Mindfulness by Matthew Sockolov. It has 75 mediations, and even talks about long exhale and finger breathing.  It’s a great resource to help you ease into mediation.