Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/9/2022
Take a deep breath.
It’s something we’ve all heard when seeming anxious — whether from friends, family and even strangers.
Of course, you don’t need to wait for other people to signal you that it’s time to hit pause. Deep breathing exercises for anxiety can help you feel better immediately — and there’s no prescription or consultation required in order for you to give it a try.
When you’re feeling anxious, deep breathing can help give you a reset. Read on to learn how it can help with anxiety, along with five ways to do it.
A deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing technique (or set of techniques) allows you to recapture control of your own breathing, which can be affected by anxiety and panic.
Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body.
Increased heart rate, fast breathing and high blood pressure — which can all happen when you’re stressed — decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.
Studies show that deep breathing techniques can positively affect your heart rate, respiratory rate and central nervous system. What seems like a simple breathing exercise can in fact help enhance cerebral and psychological flexibility, allowing you increased emotional control situationally, so you can feel better.
It is unclear exactly how breathing techniques work — yet some hypotheses suggest they may cause your body to relax, and others suggest that they signal to your body that it can relax. The key is that regardless of the reasoning, breathing exercises for anxiety can be effective.
This is incredibly beneficial to people who suffer from chronic anxiety, anxiety disorders and panic disorder, which can all lead to situations during which your anxiety essentially overwhelms you.
Panic attacks can cause a variety of symptoms to suddenly appear, from intense fear and heart palpitations, to feelings of doom and lack of control. Panic attacks can cause shortness of breath, too.
And since the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that people who do suffer from panic attacks often worry about future attacks, one of the best ways to prepare (and eliminate that worry) is to have a plan, which can involve breathing exercises.
Deep breathing exercises can take many forms, from app-guided meditations to the parts of yoga that don’t require you to learn contortionism. The goal is to regulate your breathing until you return to normal breaths.
Consider some of the methodologies below as a good starting point; ultimately, it’s best to try several versions until you find something that works for you.
One of the simplest ways to incorporate breathing exercises into your day is to practice taking breathing breaks. These are simple exercises where you stand and take a deep breath, while raising your arms slowly over your head, and lowering them as you exhale.
You can do these as needed throughout the day, though it’s recommended that you do three repetitions per set. Breathing breaks will help you refresh your energy, abandon distractions and refocus.
Paced breathing takes a little more practice to achieve than a simple breathing break. The paced breathing technique requires you to breath on a count. Inhale for two to four seconds, exhale for four to six seconds, and then repeat. You’ll want to exhale for longer than you were inhaling.
Paced breathing is great for reducing stress because it’s essentially a form of meditation. For optimal results, focus on an object or image while performing the exercise, to keep your mind centered on your breath.
There are apps that help you do these exercises and many are available for free.
Abdominal breathing, similar to other deep breathing exercises, is about repetition and pacing, though the focus here is on where you’re breathing. Abdominal breathing is about inflating and stretching your diaphragm, not your chest.
The technique requires you to place a hand on your chest and belly (each) and focus on expanding your belly, not your chest. This system is also sometimes called belly breathing; chest breathing isn’t what we want here.
After doing these belly breathing exercises three times, you can begin to build some stamina and do it for two to three minutes as needed.
4-4-8 Breathing is another counting technique that helps you regulate your breathing rate. It helps calm the nervous system and reduces stress and muscle tension.
Inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and exhale for a count of eight. Repeat this sequence three to four times and use the counting process as a bit of meditation.
Is it the best medicine? Maybe. Laughter can soothe tension, stimulate circulation and increase endorphins. We’re certain you have a comedian, movie or favorite meme compilation that can help you get started.
You can do this in a seated position on the floor or in a comfortable chair, and you don’t have to worry about conscious breathing or breath focus. Just enjoy it.
Sometimes it’s also important to laugh at yourself. Experts say not taking yourself too seriously can do wonders for your stress level.
Hopefully you’ve already given one of these techniques a shot, particularly if you’ve come across this page in the midst of an anxiety attack or stress response.
Now that you’re a bit more relaxed (hopefully), here’s the context for breathing exercises.
While they may be great to use in the moment — and offer benefits if employed in the right circumstances, deep breathing exercises are no replacement for proper mental health care.
Coping with anxiety can be a complicated process, and while lifting your arms over your head may make your chest feel less crushed by a panic attack, it’s not as effective a strategy for anxiety management as anything offered by a healthcare professional.
A mental health professional generally will agree that breathing exercises are beneficial, but they’ll also suggest other support and treatment options to help you control your anxiety.
That may involve therapeutic practices; anxiety disorders respond well when treated with practices like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which gives anxiety sufferers the tools they need to recognize and regulate their anxiety and manage it, rather than let it manage them.
Explore CBT in more detail in this guide: What Is Psychotherapy and How Does It Work.
Therapy professionals and healthcare providers may also employ medications to treat your anxiety symptoms.
Know this, too: Getting mental health support isn’t a sign of weakness; instead, it’s a resourceful way to deal with something that could be limiting your enjoyment and productivity in your daily life.
Whether you seek out therapy for treating anxiety today or not, know that professionals are available to help you learn how to manage your symptoms, no matter how severe.
Yes, that may include breathing exercises for anxiety — and they can be a wonderful and easy way to help you get a handle on your emotions, and breath. They can help you feel much more calm, and better approach the situation or trigger causing your heart rate to speed up.
And for more in-depth help, a healthcare provider can determine the best customized treatment plan for your individual needs. Consider telepsychiatry and online therapy options if you’d like to start from home.
Whether you try therapy or simply aim to laugh more, getting a handle on your mental health can help you breathe a sigh of relief.