The best way to lower anxiety naturally and in real-time is using breathwork exercises. Although anxiety is usually triggered by unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts, it can initiate a cascade of physical sensations that signal danger to the brain. When we are stressed, we often feel pressure in our chest or throat, palpitations, higher blood pressure, sweat, etc. Anxiety becomes very physiological and that is when using breathing to calm down can be very beneficial to reduce those anxious physical sensations. Breathing methods can also alleviate in the case of panic attacks.
James Nestor is an author and journalist that has spent a long time researching the benefits of breathing. In his book Breath, he summarises his findings, highlighting the keys to breathing correctly and increasing well-being and health.
Different breathing techniques have been proven effective to alleviate anxiety. Here we cover some examples.
1. Two inhales, one long exhale
Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist and professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Standford University. In his podcast, Huberman Lab, he teaches practical tools for everyday life, including different breathing methods.
One of those methods is a simple breathing technique he has researched in his lab that consists of three steps:
- Inhale through your nose until your lungs are almost full
- Then inhale a second time. This second inhale is shorter than the first one.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for as long as you can.
Huberman explains the science behind this breathing exercise and shows why it works to reduce anxiety quickly.
2. Box breathing method
Box breathing or also refer to as squared breathing is a deep breathing technique that can calm your nervous system and alleviate the anxiety in your body.
Box breathing comprises the following steps:
Choose the length of your breath and inhale-hold-exhale-hold for the same amount of seconds. For example, if you start with 4 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold 4 seconds. Then, repeat. Here you have a video that shows you how to do this box breathing.
The benefits of box breathing include easing worry and anxiety, lowering blood pressure, decreasing cortisol, and alleviating the physical sensations of anxiety.
3. 4-7-8 breathing exercise
The 4-7-8 method is established on an ancient yogic technique known as pranayama, which facilitates people to gain control over their breathing. As with other breathing methods, the 4-7-8 technique can reorient the brain to focus on regulating the breath, rather than ruminating and worrying (here you can also read how to stop ruminating thoughts).
This method consists of these steps:
- Breathing in for 4 seconds
- Holding the breath for 7 seconds
- Exhaling for 8 seconds
Here you have a video of how this technique works.
4. Inhaling and exhaling slowly
Breathing correctly can be as simple as slowing down your exhalations and inhalations. When we are anxious the tendency is to have short and shallow breaths, which sends signals of danger to the brain. On the contrary, if we extend our inhales and exhales, we send signals to the brain of calm. Try to get into the habit of a deep breath in your day-to-day for a more relaxed life.
5. Extended exhalations
The literature has proven that, in order to reduce anxiety, the key is to extend the exhales longer than the inhales. For example, Komori (2018) proved that prolonging exhalations activated parasympathetic nervous function. In contrast, during rapid breathing, the parasympathetic nervous function was significantly suppressed. This means that exhaling longer can calm your nervous system down.
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