The feeling of anxiety can creep up on you without warning. The world seems to compress. Your heart rate starts to quicken. Palms sweat. Your mind races with worse-case scenarios. Fears overwhelm you. You are caught in a current, crashing into rocks in the river of not enough and panic, unsure how to get out. You feel like you are drowning. Breathing exercises for anxiety can help.
While the free fall of anxiety can feel overpowering, there are simple deep breathing exercises for anxiety that can help calm your mind and body. Below are three different techniques.
A note on breathing exercises for anxiety.Many people who struggle with anxiety tend to breathe very shallowly. This means, you breathe through your chest but never engage your stomach. All of the techniques we are going to talk about require breathing down into your belly.
This takes intentionality. Often it helps to place one or both hands on your stomach and feel it rise and fall. If needed, try lying on the floor with one hand on your stomach, and the other on your heart.
On the inhales, try to fill your stomach as much as you can. See it as a balloon you want to inflate almost to the breaking point. On the exhales, try to push as much air out as you can, like you are trying to get all of the air out of the balloon.
It works best if you can inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth.
All of the techniques require you to focus on your breath. The goal is to pull your mind away from whatever triggered your anxiety, while helping to bring down your heart rate and allowing you to feel grounded in the present moment.
So much anxiety is about the past or the future. We struggle with what we did or did not do, how we fail or where we should be better, and the unknowns of what is to come. Breathing exercises for anxiety help to quiet our minds, push aside the clutter, and reset.
Breathing exercises for anxiety.
For this technique (also called square breathing), the goal is to create a box with your deep breaths. To do this, you breathe in for a count of five. Hold your breath for five. Exhale for five seconds. Pause for five. Repeat.
This is an easy technique you can do while waiting in the grocery store line, in a meeting, or driving. Focus on getting your belly big as you count 1-2-3-4-5. If needed, push your stomach out and then let the air fill it.
Hold this position for five beats. Exhale as you count and work on getting your stomach as empty as it can go. Draw your belly button into your spine. Work on getting it as concave as you can. Then pause for five before drawing your next big breath.
If needed you can tap your thumb against your first finger for the counts, tap your feet, or count silently in your head.
If you only have time for a few sets, it’s better than nothing. Ideally, try to do this for at least five minutes to start (gradually working your way up to twenty).
Turn off the music and box breathe on your commute. At your desk, set a timer on your phone, close your eyes, and do this with your feet planted on the floor. Close your bedroom door, set a timer, and intentionally breathe while sitting at home. Draw a bath, close your eyes, relax, and breathe your box.
Deep breathing helps with anxiety because it helps calm us down. Deep breathing helps to quiet our flight or fight reflexes and brings online the parts of our nervous system that help with rest. This enables us to focus and bring some clarity to the situation at hand.
Long exhale breathing.
The second technique is like box breathing only for this we work on having a longer exhale. It encourages us to draw in a bigger breath faster (whereas box breathing is about both a slow inhale and exhale). This time we are going to draw in our breath for three beats. Hold for a beat or two. Exhale for five beats. Repeat.
Another popular way to practice this technique is using the count 4, 7, 8. Breathe in for 4 beats, hold for 7 beats, and exhale for 8 beats.
This can be used when you are in bed and the thoughts won’t stop racing. Do this multiple times a day, sitting at your desk, during commercial breaks of your favorite TV shows, or in between projects.
An added component of breath prayer is we draw in and out our breath while saying something to help still our mind. It can be a Bible verse:
In: The Lord is my Shepherd
Out: I shall not want
In: Have mercy on me
Out: Oh Lord, a sinner
In: Abba I,
Out: Belong to you (from Brennan Manning)
In: Be Still and Know
Out: That You are God
In: With Jesus
Out: I am never alone
Or even a confession:
In: Lord, I feel alone
Out: But I know You are with me
In: Lord, I failed
Out: In Your grace, comfort me
In: Lord, I am scared (anxious, worried, sad, etc.)
Out: But You promise to never leave or forsake me
With breath prayer, we replace anxious thoughts with the truth. We take our minds off what sends us into a spiral and instead focus on the Word of God. We invite God into where we are. Psalm 56 encourages us, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3, ESV)
There is no right or wrong here. Come where you are. Inhale the worry, exhale the truth.
In: Father God come
Out: I need you, my Savior
All of the ideas above can be used within a larger meditation practice. While the breathing strategies can be used on the go to help you breathe deep through anxiety, they are best used within a longer period of concentrated prayer.
Our society rejects being still and quiet. We don’t do well being un-distracted. We get itchy if we have to wait without our phones. Distraction makes us numb, but it also leaves us anxious.
Meditative practice can sound intimidating. Even five minutes of silence sounds impossible (much less twenty!) But like any other muscle, it can be built up.
Before you engage in a meditative time, know you will get distracted. Your mind will wander. You will be tempted to check your phone, make the bed, or start dinner. The number of to-dos that will come to your mind is nothing short of remarkable. That problem you’ve been stewing over? A solution will surely hit you while you are supposed to be focused on your breathing.
That’s okay. In your mind, tie a balloon around it and send it to the corner. You will deal with it after you are done. See meditation as a sort of soul care. You, your mind, and your body are worthy of stillness for 5-10 minutes.
When the distractions come, thank them, then send them on their way. Let the thoughts pass like a cloud in the sky or a leaf in a river. You control what you focus on, so when an idea or a problem or the temptation to fidget and leave arises, return your mind to your breath.
Get comfortable. Silence your phone. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Settle in and breathe. As you get distracted, bring your mind back to counting or your prayer.
You are worth this time.
Make this a daily practice and your anxiety will decrease. Meditation is a way to help reset your system. It helps clear out the junk and bring in the good.
Deep breathing is a challenge to anxiety’s lie that it controls you. Whether it’s in the grocery store line, waiting to pick up your kids, in a meeting, or twenty minutes alone in your room, deep breathing exercises for anxiety re-center us, calm our nerves, and help us feel ready to face what lies before us.
Christian counseling for anxiety.
Sometimes, the root causes of our anxiety require talking to someone else. Feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the online counselor directory to schedule an appointment to address your anxiety. We would love to help you learn these breathing exercises for anxiety or get at the root causes of your anxious feelings. We are here to help.
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