Breathing exercises for anxiety: Calm your mind

Discover some of the best breathing exercises for anxiety, and other ways to help calm your mind.

Breathing exercises for anxiety: Calm your mind
minute read

Mentality is everything, from achieving ambitious goals to enjoying beautiful moments with friends and family. Your mind is your greatest ally, so why not treat it the right way for optimal performance and balance?

Unfortunately, many of us experience anxiety in the modern world. While these feelings of anxiety and stress are normal for everyone, they can sometimes slam the door shut on our mental capacity and chase away our sense of calm and presence.

Many reach for short-term solutions for anxiety that aren’t always sustainable—but there are healthy and effective ways to stay calm with breathing exercises and mindfulness. These breathing techniques have been studied for centuries across many cultures, and they’re always accessible, no matter when or where you are. 

Let’s explore the best breathwork methods and breathing patterns and see how they can help you stay calm, relaxed, and focused on the moment at hand.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a broad concept in holistic health and medical science, with many possible causes, sources, and symptoms. In the simplest sense, anxiety is a combination of emotions such as worry, fear, or uncertainty, manifesting in psychological or physical effects. 

Some degree of anxiety is normal in daily life—we have a stress response built into our physiology that keeps us alert and aware of our surroundings. This is important for navigating the world safely and making smart decisions for the future.

However, anxiety can sometimes build up into a more severe condition with debilitating symptoms and negative effects on one’s quality of life. 

Acute anxiety disorders can lead to panic attacks, characterized by a sense of helplessness, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath. Generalized anxiety disorder is a broad and chronic condition, with fears and worries related to social situations, work, health, travel, and more. Symptoms of anxiety can extend into all areas of life, making it difficult to complete daily tasks and enjoy hobbies.

If you’re concerned about anxiety or other mental health conditions, always talk with your healthcare provider before self-diagnosing or seeking anxiety relief.

How can breathing exercises affect anxiety?

There’s no doubt that increased awareness of anxiety disorders and mental health is a good thing. On the flip side, this publicity has also led to an influx of medical advice that isn’t always accurate, helpful, or sustainable. 

The good news is that simple breathing techniques are widely considered a safe and useful method of addressing anxiety and alleviating symptoms in the moment. Sometimes, you just need a quick breather to gather yourself, take back control, and push past your anxiety in a healthy way. 

With that said, what exactly does breathing do to rein in anxiety and return us to a state of calm? It starts with understanding the stress response of the body and the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

While these terms sound complex, the distinction is simple. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our “fight or flight” mechanism, priming the body for stressful situations and emergencies. On the other hand, the parasympathetic system governs the “rest and digest” response, conserving energy and promoting a sense of calm and well-being.

Equipped with the right breathing techniques, we can effectively pump the brakes on the sympathetic nervous response and shift gears back down to the parasympathetic. This allows us to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, maintain level blood sugar, and return to a relaxed state. 

In light of these facts, breath control is one of the best things you can do to keep your body and mind in check when anxiety strikes. Whether it’s an emergency situation or generalized anxiety throughout the day, having an arsenal of breath control methods is more powerful than you can imagine.

What breathing exercises can help calm your mind?

It’s hard to believe that breathing exercises can do so much to calm your mind, but you’ll be surprised to see how effective they really are. Let’s walk through a list of practical breathing techniques you can test right now and achieve a newfound sense of control over your anxiety at any time.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is easy to remember and highly effective in restoring a sense of calm to the body and mind. Find a comfortable position and exhale completely through your nose to begin at baseline.

The cycle starts with deep inhalation lasting for 4 seconds, followed by 7 seconds of holding your breath. This is followed by 8 seconds of exhalation, emptying your lungs before repeating the cycle once again. 

Just a few repetitions of this practice will flood your system with oxygen and help take your mind off racing thoughts and other anxiety symptoms.

Deep breathing and diaphragmatic breathing

While the “counting” method of 4-7-8 breathing is useful in a pinch, your actual breathing technique should also be an important aspect of your practice. This shifts our focus to deep breathing and diaphragmatic breathing techniques, which you should always keep in mind when performing any routine.

You may have heard of “belly breathing” or something similar, pointing to the fact that full lung expansion pushes out the abdomen and creates a feeling of pressure in the diaphragm. Don’t worry about how your belly looks—just aim to breathe as deep as possible and fill your entire torso with air. Deep breathing is crucial in activating the parasympathetic nervous system and is a valuable cue in any breathwork concept.

Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is an advanced technique originating from the ancient Indian yoga system of pranayama. This method, called nadi shodhana, involves breathing through one nostril at a time, using the fingers to restrict airflow in the opposite nostril. 

The idea is to bring attention to the breath and balance the flow of energy in the body. You can test it out with a few natural breaths and work your way into more advanced techniques described below. Cover your right nostril with your right thumb and take five deep breaths. Then, cover your left nostril with your left thumb, repeating until the body reaches a calm state. 

Box breathing

Box breathing follows a unique “four by four” structure of inhalation, exhalation, and holding. Start with breathing deeply into the diaphragm for four beats, then hold your breath for another four beats at the top of your breath. Relax your shoulders and let your tongue sit at the roof of your mouth.Then, exhale for another four beats, and rest for four beats once the breath is emptied. 

You can use the visualization of a dot making its way clockwise around a square box to help track the process and take your mind off anxiety. This technique is easy to follow and can be used at any time to help you calm down.

Mindful breathing and present-moment awareness

Mindful breathing is a general breathwork practice relating to how we perceive and track the awareness of our breath. It can be used to break the cycle of anxious thoughts and help “return to the breath” when a stressful situation strikes.

There is no single way to explore mindfulness—the only rule is staying present to the moment and tracking your breath with as much awareness as possible. Use this cue across all breathwork practices to become more mindful, present, and calm. This can be especially helpful during anxiety attacks, when you may experience shallow breathing or even hyperventilation.

Pursed lip breathing

With pursed lip breathing, the focus is on exhalation, forming your lips as if you’re blowing out a candle or cooling a cup of coffee. This “whoosh” effect has the dual benefit of bringing attention to your breath while prolonging the time it takes to exhale fully. 

It’s common to overemphasize the inhalation aspect of breathing and forget to exhale with equal intention. Pursed lip breathing addresses this issue and keeps your body in balance, no matter what counting technique you use.

Lion’s breath

The lion’s breath technique involves a deep inhalation through the nose, followed by a short and forceful exhalation with an open mouth. This is a great way to switch up the pace of your breathing practice and add some energy to the mix. 

For extra effect, open the mouth wide and stick out your tongue, making a “ha” sound as you exhale. After a few rounds, you’ll feel focused, energized, and ready to get back in the game.

You may be hesitant to perform this technique in public, so it may be best to save it for home or yoga class! Like all breathing practices, be open to experimentation and make adjustments when necessary. 

Resonant breathing

Resonant breathing is a basic technique but useful nonetheless. Instead of trying to breathe silently, try making a soft humming sound as you exhale. This creates a calming tone that resonates throughout your body and brings you back to the present. 

You can test out different tones and volumes to see which one provides the deepest sense of calm and relief in that moment. Sometimes a higher tone can help increase focus, while low and soft notes are better for relaxation.

If you ever feel stuck in your head or sense a wave of anxiety approaching, resonant breathing can be an invaluable method. It’s a great way to conclude your breathing practice and return to focus wherever you are.

How else can you manage anxiety?

Anxiety feels the most challenging during moments of stress or uncertainty, and deep breathing can help you get out of this "fight or flight" response. However, managing anxiety is a 24/7 process, even when you don’t feel the acute symptoms. Be sure that you’re applying other proven practices that will help limit the frequency of anxious episodes and give you an added advantage if a stressful situation does unfold.

Here are some more general lifestyle tips to keep anxiety at bay and to become a healthier, more resilient person overall. 

Get moving

Health experts often sing the praises of exercise as a tool against anxiety, but the idea of a crowded gym can be stressful for some. 

Just get moving—in any way that feels best for you.

For example, you can do a home workout that you follow along with an online instructor, or do a freestyle yoga session with calming music or your favorite show. A simple walk in the park can also do wonders for your mental state and restore your sense of calm before returning to your task list.

Turn to creative outlets 

Creativity is one of the best ways to turn a sense of anxiety into something productive and fun. You can pick up an instrument, draw up designs on a tablet, or spill your thoughts onto a blank page to clear your head. Creative outlets are healthy and can take your mind off daily stressors while building skills and self-confidence.

Many people find that creative activities are more calming and rejuvenating than simply watching TV or scrolling online. Consider adding one of these hobbies to your routine and see what benefits you can reap. 

Lean on loved ones

Turning to loved ones for support or advice is a reliable way to voice your thoughts and alleviate anxious energy. Sometimes, it just takes speaking your concerns out loud to realize that it’s not the end of the world. 

Don’t hesitate to vent your feelings to a friend or family member, as this can help you deal with stress and further your connections with others. You’ll usually discover that you aren’t alone in your thoughts, and some of your personal problems are more universal than you believe. 

If you don’t feel comfortable discussing certain topics with others, you can always look for professional assistance from therapists or support groups who are ready to help.

Healthy lifestyle habits

Anxiety can sometimes jump out of the blue, but typically, it’s the slow and steady buildup of many lifestyle factors, ones that are both in and out of your control. It’s not uncommon to experience more anxiety if you’re undersleeping, eating a poor diet, or using unhealthy stress management techniques to cope.

To truly get the edge over anxiety, try analyzing your daily routine and assessing your lifestyle overall. You may discover that your diet needs work or your sleep habits are out of sorts. By identifying these weak links in your lifestyle, you can focus on addressing them and strengthening yourself against future bouts of anxiety. 

Another benefit of lifestyle optimization is the sense of control you get over yourself and your surroundings. Simple practices like hygiene, cleaning, and financial planning can go a long way in restoring this feeling of control and attaining a sense of calm within. Don’t underestimate the power of actionable steps, however small they may seem.

Try grounding techniques

With anxious thoughts often come feelings of disconnectedness or dissociation. That’s why many mental health experts recommend grounding techniques that return you back to the present moment and space.

A simple grounding technique is using a mindfulness object like a stone or stress ball to focus your attention and stop overwhelming thoughts in their tracks. You can carry one of these objects with you and use it as an anchor for deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, gratitude, or other techniques. Simply focusing on a basic object can reinforce reality and remind you that you’re in control.

Other grounding techniques involve journaling, stretching, or organizing your immediate environment. These small steps can reorient your mind in a positive way and get you back on track for whatever comes next.

Spend time outside

Be sure to step away from the stresses of work and technology by spending time in nature when possible. Kick your shoes off and enjoy some grounding in the park, get to a lake or beach, or take walk around your neighborhood. Better yet, use this time to employ some relaxation techniques we’ve outlined to get the dual benefit of nature and breathwork. 

By simply leaving the laptop or phone behind and experiencing the outdoors, you can remind yourself of the basic joys of life and support your natural stress response.

Bottom line

Anxiety isn’t something to take lightly, so take this moment to create a game plan that you can follow for the long term. With a combination of breathing techniques, mindfulness methods, and lifestyle habits, you may be able to general anxiety and overcome tough situations. 

There’s no quick fix to anxiety, and for many, it’s a lifelong battle. But with so many techniques to use and ways to get support, you can find a sense of well-being in this world while doing what you love most.


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A Five-Minute Breathing Exercise for Anxiety and Mood | Berkeley 

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How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing | NIH

The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases | NIH