Health Agenda

Mental Health

Breathing exercises for anxiety

When anxiety hits, it can be overwhelming. Use these relaxing techniques to curb stressful feelings.

How many times have you heard “just breathe” when people are trying to get someone to relax, focus and regain self-control?

It could be in times of major physical stress, like giving birth, when we tell women to breathe through the pain. Or in moments of panic, when we start to gasp for air, then try to slow and regulate our breath to lessen the sensation.

The way we breathe can help us ease and control moments of fear, stress and anxiety. And like a facemask that shields us from germs, or a seatbelt that protects us from harm, something as simple as a one-minute breathing technique can help ease feelings of anxiety.

So, how does our breathing affect how we feel? And what are the breathing techniques for anxiety that can help us regain a sense of calm and control?

The link between breathing and anxiety

Take a moment to do this breathing exercise. Sit in a comfortable chair, somewhere quiet. Close your mouth and take a deep breath in through your nose, then breathe out through your mouth, not quite hard enough to blow out a candle, but hard enough to hear the breath leave your body.

You’ve just sent a signal to your brain that tells it to calm down. This simple exercise, that takes just a few seconds, is regularly practised by on-air broadcasters to help steady their voice and reduce nervous jitters, but it can work on anyone.

Research tells us that deep breathing can help ease symptoms of anxiety such as a racing pulse, rapid breath and even high blood pressure. During moments of anxiety or stress, many of us can start to hyperventilate when we breathe too quickly and shallowly. Struggling to get enough oxygen can result in feelings of panic and dizziness that can lead to fainting or panic attacks.

Learning to recognise the start of these symptoms allows you to gain control over your breath and helps curb feelings of panic or anxiety.

When you only have one minute…

Sometimes you need to calm yourself quickly. The 4-7-8 technique, which takes very little time and can be done sitting or standing, was developed by Dr Andrew Weil. He claims it can “be calming and energising and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders”.

Here’s what to do:

  • Start by having your back flat against a wall or surface.
  • Put your tongue behind your top front teeth, keeping it there while you breathe.
  • Breathe in quietly through your nose for four counts.
  • Hold your breath for seven counts.
  • Making a whooshing sound while you breathe out through your mouth for eight counts.
  • Repeat from the start, aiming for four cycles.

When you’re in a meeting…

Anxiety can strike at any time and you can’t always get away from the situation so counting your breath, as recommended by Headspace, can bring you back to a place of calm, without having to move or draw attention to what you’re doing. This might be especially helpful at work or when out in public.

  • Start by counting each breath - one as you breathe in, two as you breathe out, three as you breathe in and so on.
  • Don’t let your mind wander. Concentrate on your breathing and the number of breaths.
  • Aim to get up to five, and then continue with the breaths as you count backwards, back down to one.
  • Repeat until you start to feel more in control.

When stress starts to build…

Box or square breathing is an exercise commonly used by people who experience high levels of stress or anxiety either at work or in general life. It can be practised daily and over time can help your body learn to slow and control your breathing automatically. The Box breathing technique is done sitting up, so you can do this exercise on your way to work or even at the office. Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit on a chair, feet flat on the floor, back straight.
  • Breathe in through your nose for four counts.
  • Hold for four counts.
  • Breathe out through your nose for four counts.
  • Aim to repeat four times and do the exercise two to three times daily.

Tip: Picturing the side of a square with each count of four can help maintain focus.

Learning how to breathe

There are many breathing techniques and exercises that can help to slow the breath and ease anxiety symptoms. Not all of them will work for you, or be suitable to do in places where you need to use them, so do some research and try a few different types.

There are great online resources and apps that talk you through the exercise as you do it, which can help if you find that you’re easily distracted.

Simply Google or search your app store for ‘calm breathing’ or ‘mindfulness’. You can also ask your GP for some techniques, or even a local yoga or meditation coach.

Getting help with anxiety

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with anxiety, there is help available.

We’re trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing services are unique to HCF, offering eligible HCF members* access to online video support and navigation to other mental health services as needed.

Where to find more mental health help:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

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