Breathing exercises for anxiety
There are a number of different breathing exercises which can reduce stress and anxiety. Your goal at this stage is just to get your breathing just a little bit slower and deeper than it is now. So no need to get too anxious about doing this right!
One thing to keep in mind – it is virtually impossible to cause yourself damage with a breathing exercise, or by hyperventilating. Your body has inbuilt mechanisms to protect itself. The very worst that can happen is that you might lose consciousness, and your body's automatic reflexes take over. Some people – a very few – find that they become more anxious at first when doing any kind of breathing or meditation technique, so it's good to remember that you are safe doing this.
...even so, if you have any sort of respiratory problem, you should check with your doctor before doing any sort of breathing practice, just to be safe.
If you have any problems at all, scale it down – it's meant to be gentle and easy. Don't try to make extreme changes to your normal breathing pattern all at once!
Here is the breathing method I recommend. I learned this version from my Aikido (martial arts) teacher, but it's very similar to the yoga breathing method, the Complete Breath.
- Begin by sitting with your spine straight, in an upright chair.
- Breathe out slowly, as fully as you can. If you can, pull your stomach in slightly at the end of your out-breath, and bend forward just a little, to empty your lungs as fully as you can.
- Pause just a moment, then begin to breathe in (through your nose). Keep your breathing smooth and steady, and imagine your belly is filling up with air like a container slowly filling with water. Count slowly to yourself – it doesn't matter how long this takes.You are going to try to match your outbreath to your inbreath, and as you practise over time, you will find you can comfortably take longer for each breath.
- Don't overfill your lungs – if you feel your shoulders beginning to rise or your chest over-inflating, it's time to stop.
- Let your body move back to its vertical position, if you haven't already.
- Pause a moment, then begin to breathe out. Breathe out slowly and steadily, and try to keep the count the same as your in-breath.
- When you have fully exhaled, pull in your stomach as you did the first time, and lean forward just slightly.
Both the aikido and the yoga version of this exercise instruct you to breathe out through the mouth. That is best for your breathing session – though there will be times in your everyday life when you want to manage your breathing in public, and don't want to be conspicuous about it. So it's still effective if you breathe out through your nose if this is more convenient.
Continue with this breathing pattern for a few minutes, aiming to keep your breathing rhythm smooth and steady.
Five minutes should be enough to start with, and don't worry if you have to break it up when you are still learning this method. Just persist!
You may find that you can keep your breathing smooth and steady for the out-breath, but then you begin to gulp air for the in-breath. If that happens, shorten the time of the out-breath (but try to keep it even, and still empty the lungs) and then you should find it easier to control your in-breath right from the beginning.
Or – you may find the other way around, it is easy to breathe in steadily and slowly, but your out-breath is more of a quick pant. In that case, follow the above instructions in reverse, letting your in-breath be a bit faster, and so easier to control your out-breath.
Ten minutes is a good length session to aim for, as regular practice.
You will find that ten minutes of breathing can reduce stress and anxiety for some time afterwards - it acts as a mini-meditation session, and has all sorts of positive effects, calming your mind as well as your body.
If you want to know more about how anxiety affects your breathing, you can find information about hyperventilation and anxiety here.
Or browse more anxiety resources....
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