The Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Your heart pounds. You can’t quite catch your breath. You’ve got butterflies in your stomach. You want to cry or run or curl up in a little ball. You can’t calm yourself down and, worst of all, you’re not sure why you’re upset in the first place.

Though you may feel trapped and alone, you aren’t. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over 18 percent of U.S. citizens 18 and older suffer from this extremely common mental illness. There are breathing exercises for anxiety that can help you deal with oncoming attacks.

If you’ve ever experienced a sudden overwhelming feeling of dread, anxiety or fear — a looming sense that something terrible is about to happen — you may have experienced a panic or anxiety attack.

The bad news: Panic attacks, and their symptoms, can last for a few minutes or many hours without any warning.

The good news: Panic attacks, also called panic attack disorders, are highly treatable. Read on for breathing exercises for anxiety that can help you relax.

WHAT CAUSES PANIC ATTACKS?

Panic disorder — or extreme anxiety — results from concern or worry. A minor worry (like forgetting to pay a bill or wondering whether you’ve sent that birthday card to your aunt) doesn’t usually cause an attack. However, when you’re very concerned, worried or afraid about something, your body’s stress response starts a cascade of events within your body’s nervous and endocrine systems. The severity of an anxiety or panic attack depends on the stress response — the higher the worry or concern, the greater the attack.

Ongoing, persistent, chronic worry (about finances, jobs or relationships, for example) causes voluntary panic attacks. Your body responds dramatically to this concern or worry. General elevated stress causes involuntary panic attacks. Without any help from you, your body activates an automatic stress response because it’s overly stressed.

Panic is sneaky. It tries to convince you that you’re in danger even though you’re really not. Though it can feel like a heart attack, the very real chest pain you experience during a panic attack results from improper breathing that tightens your chest.

SYMPTOMS OF AN ATTACK

The Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Everyone responds differently to panic attacks. Some people go to the ER because they’re worried that they’re having a heart attack. Other people experience milder symptoms. Doctors have identified more than 100 indicators of anxiety and panic attacks. These are the most common symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Upset or nervous stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations/racing heart
  • Neck tension
  • Headaches
  • Inability to rest, settle or sleep
  • Fear of impending doom
  • Chest pain
  • Shallow or monitored breathing
  • Over-breathing

Fortunately, even though it may not feel like it at the time, panic attacks aren’t physically serious. Since they’re caused by an overly-stressed body (stress-response hyperstimulation) or obsessive, anxious thoughts, you can stop attacks by taking conscious control to redirect your thoughts to something less stressful and anxiety-inducing.

Consciously focusing on calming thoughts halts your body’s stress response and expels the stress hormones. That horrible, panicked feeling subsides, and gradually, you can relax.

Breathing to calm yourself down can take time — up to 30 minutes if it’s a serious panic attack. Meditation and yoga are great for inducing a longer-term sense of calm, but if you want more immediate relief, try the breathing exercises for anxiety in this article.

WHY BREATHE FOR ANXIETY?

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” — Amit Ray

Reclaim your sense of calm by training yourself to breathe through anxiety or panic attacks. Better breathing, which requires conscious thought, relaxes your autonomic nervous system and reduces those attacks.

Here are a few benefits of trying these breathing exercises for anxiety:

  • Its effect is nearly instant and nearly universally effective.
  • It doesn’t need to be complicated to work.
  • It works at the physiological level to automatically slow your heart rate.
  • It calms body systems that are in fight, flight or freeze mode.
  • You can focus on your breathing anywhere.
  • It’s free.

Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

There’s no shortage of different breathing exercises for anxiety, so try out several to see what works best for you.

CO2 RE-BREATHING

How it works

  • CO2 re-breathing rebalances your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels if you’ve been hyperventilating.
  • Re-breathing won’t necessarily completely stop a panic attack but it does reduce the symptoms’ severity.

Try it

  • Cup your hands over your mouth or use a paper bag. Breath into your hands or the bag slowly.
  • Breathe normally and deeply.
  • Repeat for 5 to 10 breaths.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

DEEP BREATHING FOR RELAXATION

How it works

  • Deep breathing for relaxation won’t halt an anxiety attack in its tracks, but it reduces high stress and anxiety that could lead to an attack.
  • Usually you’ll be much calmer by the time you’ve reached your tenth deep breath. When you’ve become really comfortable, you can increase the number of breaths.

Try it

  • Sit in a chair with your back straight and your arms on the rests; alternatively, sit on the floor and rest your back against a wall with your arms on your lap or at your sides — whichever is most comfortable.
  • Take a deep, slow breath through your nose for a count of 5 or 6 seconds.
  • Hold the breath for a few 2 to 3 seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for another 6 or 7 seconds — breathe like you’re whistling.
  • Repeat 10 times.

Level of difficulty: Intermediate — it takes a bit of practice at first but gets easier with time.

breathing exercises for anxiety

ADVANCED INHALE-HOLD-EXHALE DEEP BREATHING

How it works

  • Advanced inhale-hold-exhale deep breathing combines the previous two methods, so it’s one of the best breathing exercises for anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Slow, controlled breaths are naturally calming. Holding your breath helps to adjust your CO2 levels.

Try it

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place where you can sit in a meditative pose comfortably for 15–20 minutes.
  • Repeat this three-stage pattern for 10 breath cycles:
    • First, inhale and count 5 heartbeats.
    • Second, hold breath and count 7 heartbeats.
    • Third, exhale and count 9 heartbeats.

Level of difficulty: Advanced — it takes practice to master, so try it out when you’re more relaxed. If you master this technique, it works well to stop a full-blown panic attack and reduce anxiety symptoms.

SAMA VRITTI “EQUAL BREATHING”

How it works

  • Having trouble falling asleep? Equal breathing works like counting sheep to interrupt your mind’s racing thoughts or whatever is distracting you from relaxing.
  • It’s not just for counting sleep! This technique works well any time to balance oxygen and CO2 levels, calm the nervous system and redirect focus.

Try it

  • Find a comfortable meditative pose.
  • Inhale and exhale on a count of four through your nose.
  • Repeat for 10 breaths or more.
  • When you’re feeling comfortable, you can extend the counts to 6 or 8 seconds per inhale/exhale.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

ABDOMINAL BREATHING

How it works

  • Have test anxiety? Stressing about that dentist appointment? Of all the breathing techniques for anxiety, this one is the best for self-calming and banishing butterflies.
  • It’ll lower your blood pressure and reduce your heart rate.
  • It does take some practice to control your breath if you find yourself stressed more often than not, so take time to practice the technique when you’re calmer and don’t quite need it. You’ll still reap the benefits!

Try it

  • Find a comfortable meditative pose.
  • Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose and use your lower hand to feel your diaphragm (not your chest) expand, drawing in air and inflating your lungs.
  • Take 6 to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

PROGRESSIVE RELAXATION

How it works

  • Progressive relaxation helps tame tension in your body and refocus your energy.

Try it

  • Sit in a comfortable, relaxed position.
  • Close your eyes, and tense and relax each muscle group from your toes up to your head. Take deep, slow breaths as you tense and relax your muscles.
  • Start with your toes and feet, then knees, thighs and glutes, then chest, arms, hands, and finally neck, jaw and eyes.
  • Breathe in through your nose, hold your breath for 5 seconds while you tense each muscle group, and then breathe out through your mouth while you relax the muscles.
  • If you get dizzy holding your breath, reduce holding your breath for 1 or 2 seconds, and work up to holding your breath longer.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

NADI SHODHANA “ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING”

How it works

  • Alternate nostril breathing creates calm and balance, and unites the brain’s right and left sides.
  • When it’s crunch time, you need focus or want to energize, this technique is as effective as a cup of coffee (so don’t try it before bedtime).

Try it!

  • Find a comfortable, meditative pose.
  • Hold your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.
  • At the peak of inhalation, hold your right ring finger over your left nostril and release and exhale through your right nostril.
  • Repeat the breaths 3 to 5 times.

Level of Difficulty: Intermediate

GUIDED VISUALIZATION

How it works

  • We wouldn’t recommend this technique when you’re driving — it works well to relieve anxiety and reduce stress wherever you can safely close your eyes.
  • It can help boost feelings of confidence and health.
  • Skill and efficiency increase with practice, so try it when you’re more relaxed first so you can call up your inner yogi when you need that support.

Try it

  • Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably.
  • Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and focus on pleasant, positive images to replace negative thoughts.

Learn more about this technique.

Level of difficulty: Intermediate

KAPALABHATI “SKULL SHINING BREATH”

How it works

  • Skull shining breath is one of the best breathing exercises for anxiety when you’re just waking up or feeling a bit glum or stressed.
  • If alternate nostril breathing is like a cup of aromatic coffee, Kapalabhati is a double-shot of espresso.

Try it!

  • Find a comfortable, meditative pose.
  • Start with a long, slow inhale through your nose, followed immediately with a quick, powerful exhale from your belly, keeping your inhalation four times as long as your exhalation. (If you’re new at this, cup your hand around your belly so you can feel your diaphragm contract.)

Level of difficulty: Advanced

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF IT’S WORKING?

If you’re breathing better and feeling calmer, your breathing techniques for anxiety are working.

Spire tracks your emotional state and reminds you to take time to breathe. It measures your breath all day and gently alerts you to sudden changes so you can reset your breathing pattern to an optimal rate. You can even watch your breathing in real-time by following your Breathwave!

Rebecca Dennis from Breathing Tree says, “We’re born with the ability to breathe properly. If you look at babies, they take big, beautiful, connective breaths that fill their bellies with air causing it to expand and then flatten when they breathe out. But by adulthood, we become too busy to breathe properly … and we get by on half breaths.”

Spire helps to remind you how to breathe properly. Since the average person inhales and exhales about 23,000 times a day, channel your breathing to help control anxiety or panic attacks and to maintain a healthy, focused balance. These breathing exercises for anxiety will help you get there.

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Spire is dedicated to helping you live a happier, healthier lifestyle with an easy-to-use device for mindful breathing techniques. Learn more about the benefits of breath-tracking at Spire.io.

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