The Very Best Breathing Technique For Anxiety, According To A Therapist

Photo: Per Swantesson

It's no secret that anxiety and stress levels are on the rise, particularly among young people. Rates of anxiety have been steadily climbing for several decades now, with college campuses reporting that anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common mental health concern among students.

However, despite being dubbed the most anxious generation, studies show that young adults (ages 18-33) feel the least equipped to manage their anxiety. And I see similar trends in my office: My clients are distressed by bouts of anxiety that appear to come out of nowhere, and at the most inconvenient times. When this happens, investigative mode kicks in, and the scramble to find an explanation for their symptoms begins. "I just need to figure out why this is happening, then I can control it and make it stop." Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, hunting down the root cause of your anxiety in the moment you are having anxiety does not always work. In fact, it often makes it worse. That’s because anxiety does not travel with logic. For most of us, acute anxiety is not purely cognitive—meaning, it is not just something that occupies our rational thoughts but rather something that lives in our bodies.

Realizing that anxiety is physiological paves the way for an intervention that addresses both mind and body. One quick and effective way to do this is through intentional breathing.

Why and how to practice intentional breathing.

Breathing is frequently neglected as a resource. There is a lot of potential healing power in our breath, if we are mindful and intentional in the way that we do it. According to experts like Dr. Stephen Porges, who studies polyvagal theory, breathing with an exhale longer than an inhale allows the body to regulate itself and achieve a state of relaxation. That’s because these types of breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that allows us to rest and relax by signaling that we are safe.

Conversely, acute stress or anxiety activates our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our "flight or fight" response. This will often manifest as a racing heart, increased/shallow breaths, sweating, and the release of stress hormones—essentially, the body is being primed for action because it thinks it is about to face a threat. For anyone who experiences anxiety, these physical sensations are all too familiar.

So the trick is to turn down the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. To do this, try placing your hands on your belly in a seated position (this can be done lying down, too), with both feet firmly planted on the floor. Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose, and notice your hands on your belly rising, as if a balloon were being inflated. As you exhale, your hands and your belly will gently fall. Try to have your exhale last twice as long as your inhale.

Like most things, the benefits of this will increase with practice and repetition on a daily basis—not solely when experiencing acute anxiety. Remember that there are many different types of breathing exercises, and I encourage you to explore different ones to see which feel best. Some people like to pair this type of breathing with a peaceful visualization or positive affirmation. The most important thing is to use an exercise that feels good for you. Breathing is just one of many strategies for managing anxiety, and ultimately the most effective intervention is the one that suits you and your body best—so listen to it!

Want more ideas for how to manage anxiety? Here are five techniques to crush it.

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