Even if you’re well aware of your triggers, anxiety can strike at any moment, causing a spike in your heart rate, sudden sweating or shaking, and a general sense of feeling out of control. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to anxiety, but breathing exercises are an excellent tool.
“Breathing exercises that encompass a cognitively distracting component are shown to be the most effective; they not only calm the body and activate the parasympathetic nervous system but also provide distraction mentally, and can halt ruminating thoughts that increase the intensity of anxiety,” says Jillian Brandmaier, a therapist based in New York City. Essentially, formulating your breath in certain ways can trick your nervous system into feeling calm and relax your heart rate within minutes.
Here are a few breathing exercises for anxiety that therapists teach their patients and that you can implement the next time you feel anxiety coming on.
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The 4-4-4 method
If you’re new to breathing techniques for anxiety, this method is a great place to start. All you have to remember is the number four. “This encompasses breathing in for four seconds, holding for 4 seconds, breathing out for four seconds, and holding for four seconds,” says Brandmaier. It’s also known as the box-breathing method.
How does it work? “Deep breathing enables the parasympathetic nervous system in our bodies to be activated, calming our nervous system, heart rate, and fight-or-flight responses, which are triggered by anxiety,” says Brandmaier. “Coupling deep breathing with counting, a mentally stimulating activity, enables us to be distracted by this task, decreasing the intensity of ruminating thoughts that increase anxiety.”
The 4-7-8 method
Similar to 4-4-4, the 4-7-8 method involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and exhaling the breath for eight seconds. “This technique is extremely effective for anxiety because it combats the two areas where anxiety can be held: cognitively as well as somatically [in the body],” explains Brandmaier.
The benefits of this technique are similar to the 4-4-4 method, but this is a slightly more advanced version. If you quickly master 4-4-4, you can move on to this method and hold and exude longer breaths, which lead to deeper relaxation. “Another benefit of these exercises is that they are adaptable to a variety of situations. They are a generalizable coping skill for moments where anxiety arises at work, at home, or in public.”
What are other ways to quickly calm anxiety?
Brandmaier notes that many times, anxiety is stored in both our minds and bodies, so working both at the same time can help.
“Intense forms of exercise, such as jumping jacks, going for a walk or a short run, and intense yoga can allow us to release the anxious energy stored in our bodies as well as release endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ hormones that can aid us in combating stress and aid in coping related behaviors,” explains Brandmaier.
It’s scientifically proven, too. “Research depicts a direct correlation between lower levels of endorphins and higher levels of stress hormones, including cortisol,” she notes.
Meditation can also help to bring the mind back to the present moment. Anxiety is often about future situations we fear will have a negative consequence or outcome, so “when we can bring our focus back to the present moment, we can see solutions, different outcomes, or factors that we are minimizing, that can change the way we are looking at this circumstance,” she adds.
Of course, these are just a few methods you can use to deal with anxiety as it arises. You might consider reaching out to a psychiatrist or psychologist for professional help if “the anxiety or stress you are experiencing is causing you distress and negatively affecting many factors and facets of your life,” says Brandmaier.