Breathing for anxiety reduction

Are you breathing the right way to reduce anxiety and increase calmness?

Who knew you could breathe incorrectly, right?

Well, you can.  I see it in my private practice all the time, especially with folks with anxiety. I’m here to help you learn to breath so that your autonomic nervous system is not interpreting your breathing as meaning, “there’s a threat here and we’d better be ready to fight or flee.”

Here’s the deal.

Your level of anxiety arousal is created by your limbic system and your brain stem.  Parts of your nervous system that you don’t normally have any control over with your conscious mind.  Breathing is unique in that aspect, because you can simply ignore it and you will “breathe yourself” without any conscious awareness.  But, unlike other elements of this system, you can consciously and deliberately change how you’re breathing–and immediately feel the difference.

You can breathe as if you’re frightened or angry — and actually begin to feel frightened or angry.

You can also breathe as if you’re calm and relaxed — and feel yourself relaxing, your muscle tone softening, your mind easing.

The trouble is that many, many people habitually breathe as if they’re a little frightened or angry, and they don’t know it.  But their nervous systems know it, and respond by keeping them just a little on edge.  From this edge, being pushed over the precipice into full on anxiety is only a nudge away.

What does “bad breathing” look like?  High and shallow.  If your chest and even shoulders are moving with your breath, you’re breathing as if you’re responding to a threat.  Breathing high and shallow forces you to breath faster because you’re not using your lungs fully.  Breathing faster oxygenates the blood and that is a signal to the limbic system that you’re getting ready to use your muscles for fight or flight.  And breathing from the chest rather than the diaphragm prevents the rhythmic movement of something called the vagus nerve which runs from your brain stem down past your diaphragm. The vagus nerve is the chief input used by your nervous system to determine whether you are calm, or under threat. (see the graphic)

What does “calm breathing” look like?  Belly breathing.  Not necessarily deep (I’ll explain further down). Breathing from the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve (one big happy check box for “calm” in your nervous system) AND uses your lungs more fully and completely, meaning you don’t have to breathe as fast, thus creating a better ratio between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood (another big happy check box for “calm”). Because remember, according to your nervous system too much oxygen in your blood is only there to help you fight or run. It’s there to give strength and energy to your muscles.

How do you learn to correct your breathing?

Here’s how I teach clients.  It’s about two things:  where you’re breathing from ( you want to breath from the diaphragm, not the chest) and the pace or rhythm of your breathing.

Let’s start with the pace.

You want to breathe out for a little longer than you breath in.  The goal here is not “deep breathing” — which can actually make your anxiety worse if you do it wrong — but to correct the cadence and length of your breaths in order to bring your oxygen/CO2 ratio into “calm” range.

Ready?  Breathe IN to the count of 5.   Breathe OUT to the count of 7.  Repeat several times until you start to feel your muscles soften (you’ll probably feel this in your extremities first — your arms and legs will start to feel heavy and the muscles will let go of the tension that you probably didn’t even know you were holding onto).  Spend a minute or two with this exercise to receive the full benefit.

Once you have that down, practice creating a little “pause” at the bottom of your breath — after your outward breath.  A little pause where you’re neither breathing in, nor breathing out, just for a second.

Doing this correctly will lower the oxygen and raise the CO2 in your blood to “calm” levels.

Now for where you’re breathing from.

Lie on the floor, so you have a hard surface beneath you (if you can.  This is really the best way to get the feel of the muscles involved).  Don’t do this on a bed, it’s too soft and will absorb the movement of your muscles.  Put one hand on your lower tummy, and one hand on your upper chest.  While breathing with the pace described above, your goal is to have the hand on your tummy move up and down with your breath, while your hand on your chest remains still.

I have had clients come back in the following week telling me their deep abdominal muscles are sore from doing this!  Yes, and that tells you that you have not been using these muscles, right?  I have had clients with “free ranging” anxiety (no specific triggers) experience relief from their anxiety symptoms just from correcting their breathing.

How to make this habitual.

The good news is that we’re meant to breathe this way (just watch a baby breathe), so making the switch isn’t that hard.  But it does require a period of mindfulness.  I have my clients set a timer (there’s an app for that!) to go off every hour and check in with their breathing and make the correction every hour for 2-3 weeks or as long as it takes.  Another key is to check and correct your breathing as soon as you begin to feel anxious or worried.

There are all kinds of breathing app for your smart phone. Are these helpful?  Yes, if you like them and use them.  They’re not necessary (the instructions above, your own mindfulness, and the equipment your body already has are all you really need), but if you find an app engaging and that means you are more consistent with creating your good breathing habit, then by all means, use it!

Your system WANTS to be calm.  Calm means safe.  Working with your breath is one of the fastest and easiest ways to send intentional signals to your autonomic nervous system that you are safe and therefore, can and should be calm.

Practice these breathing exercises, and experience the positive results.

Please let me know in the comments if you have questions, and how this helps for you.



7 thoughts on “Breathing for anxiety reduction

  • at

    I’m a teacher and have some kids with behavioral issues (small classes). After reading this, I’m considering starting our day with breathing exercises. I feel like starting the day feeling safe and calm might do wonders for the classroom.

    • at

      Hi Meg, thanks for your comment. There is quite a bit of research out there on working with breathing, meditative and other centering practices in the classroom, helping kids feel safe and calm and even raising self esteem! Let me know what you implement and how it goes for you! Blessings! ~Cindy

  • at

    Hi Jen, there are a number of apps out there, but I don’t personally use or recommend any. The only “app” I want to rely on is the one that came installed with me! If you do use an app, it’s important to use it as a training tool and then wean yourself off of the app so that the skill is an internal one. You never know when you’re going to need your self-calming skills, and your app might not be there! I give the same advice to clients working on sleep. Once you’ve re-established a good sleeping pattern, it’s important to make that yours, and not be dependent on anything external. Great questions! Thanks for reading! ~Cindy

  • at

    This is so interesting. I think it can be easy to forget how our physical and mental wellbeing are inextricably linked. So do you happen to use or recommend a particular ap? I haven’t tried any, but I like the idea (at least until I develop more on my own).

    • at

      Hi Jen, I just use the app in my head! I’ve heard people saying they like this or that app, but I have a bias toward wanting myself and my clients to be able to become calm and relaxed wherever and whenever they need to, without reliance on anything. The more you do self hypnosis with MP3s the more you learn what self hypnosis feels like to you and then you can drop into that state with your intention alone. Thanks for your comment!


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