How Breathwork Can Help Ease Anxiety + 7 Exercises To Start With

Breathwork Teacher By Gwen Dittmar
Breathwork Teacher
Gwen Dittmar is a business and life coach, breathwork healer, and soul guide based in Los Angeles.
Medical review by Roxanna Namavar, D.O.
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine & Psychiatrist
Roxanna Namavar, D.O. is an adult psychiatrist focusing on integrative health. She completed her residency training at the University of Virginia Health-System and currently has a private practice in New York City.
Young woman sitting on a bed with her eyes closed meditating

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Breathwork is an active form of meditation that allows us to disconnect from our mind, reconnect with our body, energy, and ourselves, and enter a different state of consciousness. This elevated state brings us closer to healing, clarity, peace, wholeness, and further from chronic stress and anxiety.

How does breathwork ease anxiety?

While fear can keep us safe at times, having too much of it becomes unhealthy for our body, mind, heart, and spirit. Anxiety, or the constant and debilitating fear of the future, sends the nervous system into overdrive, activates the fight-or-flight response, and fills the body with the stress hormone cortisol. Anxiety also affects our ability to control our thoughts, which is exactly where the breath can become an anecdote.

When we engage in deep and rhythmic breathing, we activate the vagus nerve, turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, and pump the brakes on anxiety and stress. As our physiology returns to its inherent state, our mind calms, our heart opens, and we remember the wholeness and truth of who we are. There are many types of breathwork techniques that can have this calming and fortifying effect on the body. Here are a few to check out:

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1. Box breathing

Box breathing, also known as square breathing, or 4-4-4-4 breath, slows the heart rate and deepens concentration. This type of breathwork lineage, which comes from Navy SEAL training, is thought to heighten efficiency, performance, concentration, and stress relief. (The armed forces have actually conducted studies on how mindfulness-based training can change the way soldiers respond in stressful situations.)

How To Do The Box Breathing Technique

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Start by releasing all of the air from your chest and hold your breath for 4 seconds, then breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 4 seconds, then exhale out of the nose for 4 seconds. If you can, repeat this cycle for 5 minutes to feel the effects.

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2. Relaxing breath from Dr. Andrew Weil

Relaxing breath, also known as 4-7-8 breathing, slows the heart rate and brings our consciousness to the present moment. It also teaches the body how to take in less, release more, and create space between inhales and exhales. By creating space between stimulus and response, this breath has a practical application in the stressful moments we encounter on a daily basis.

How to do it:

Start by releasing all of the air from your chest and inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale out of the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle up to four times.

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3. Coherent breathing from Stephen Elliott

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While our natural tendency is to breathe at a rate of 2 or 3 seconds per breath, this controlled and conscious breathing (which is a common practice within yogic traditions) slows our inhales and exhales down to 4 seconds, then 5 seconds, then beyond. The intention of this breath is to increase your heart rate variability (HRV), which calms the body and can affect your heart rate, digestion, concentration, vitality, sleep, and stress response.

How to do it:

To start, focus on the natural rhythm of your breath to obtain a baseline length of each inhale and exhale. Then for 1 minute, breathe in for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. Then repeat for 5 seconds, then repeat for 6 seconds, and if you are able, gradually expand to 10 seconds. Whatever elongated breath you work up to, maintain it for 5 minutes to start and work your way up over time to 20 minutes.

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4. Belly breathing

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple practice that acquaints us with the natural rhythm of the breath and reminds us to breathe into our belly (as opposed to our chest) to help promote a feeling of calm.

How to do it:

Sitting on the floor or the edge of a chair, place one hand on your chest and the other hand just below your rib cage. Inhale through the nose, such that you feel the breath move down and your belly rise. Exhale through the mouth, such that your hand just below the rib cage falls inward. The hand on your chest will remain still. Repeat this 15 to 20 times and slowly build to 5 minutes.

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5. Breathwork by David Elliott

This is the breathing practice that I studied, practice, and facilitate for my clients, and I would not be where I am today without it. This practice has allowed me to clear anxieties and fears about speaking up, sharing my truth, and holding healthy boundaries.

How to do it:

This form of healing breath is a three-part breathwork that is done laying down. The breath is all through the mouth, and consists of one inhale into the belly, a second inhale into the chest, and an exhale. To learn more about the ins and outs of how it's done, refer to my mindbodygreen class, The Ultimate Guide To Breathwork.

6. Breath of fire

Breath of fire is a form of pranayama based in Kundalini yoga tradition. It's excellent for inner core strength, as well as warding off anxiety and depression. This is an intense, more advanced breathwork technique that you shouldn't practice if you're pregnant, experiencing vertigo, or have high blood pressure.

How to do it:

Sit up tall. Breathe in and out through the nose, pressing the belly out during the inhale, and pulling the belly in during the exhale. The breathing will be loud and quick as you increase the pace of breathing. To start, set a timer for 30 seconds and build up to 4 minutes over a period of time.

7. Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a cleansing breathing technique that involves inhaling and exhaling through one nostril at a time. This opens the nadis, a channel of energy flow that's similar to the nervous system in Western medicine. Alternate nostril breathing purifies and calms, as well as strengthens the nervous system. It can also be a valuable tool for deepening self-awareness prior to meditation. Alternative theories also suggests this type of breathing can “balance” the pineal gland function.

How to do it:

Sitting up, begin by gently closing your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril, which should be open. Then pause and gently close your left nostril with your right ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat, alternating inhaling on the left and exhaling on the right, for a few moments.

The Ultimate Guide to Breathwork
Reduce Stress & Cultivate Abundance In Your Personal, Professional and Spiritual Life
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The Ultimate Guide to Breathwork
Reduce Stress & Cultivate Abundance In Your Personal, Professional and Spiritual Life
With Gwen Dittmar
  • 16 video lessons on breathwork practices for everyday life
  • Detailed instruction on how to practice breathwork regularly to reduce overstimulation
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