During a panic attack or while experiencing anxiety, it’s common to hyperventilate or breathe irregularly. Unfortunately, doing so can quickly worsen our anxiety symptoms. For this reason, it’s extremely important to know the best anxiety breathing techniques to stop stress and hyperventilation fast.
The best anxiety breathing techniques will vary from person to person. What works best to stop hyperventilation for one person may not work at all for someone else. It usually helps to slow breathing and prolong exhalation to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. If we can distract our anxious minds a bit, this can help even further.
Ready to figure out the best anxiety breathing technique that works for you?
Let's try out some of my favorites!
The 11 Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
During a panic attack or while hyperventilating, it's important that we regain control of our breathing. When we breathe too rapidly, we put greater stress on our bodies, causing our anxiety to worsen rather than resolve. Here are the best breathing techniques for anxiety relief:
- 4-7-8 Breathing
- The Paper Bag Method
- Box Breathing (Navy SEAL technique)
- Pursed Lip Breathing
- "Light and Smoke" Method
- T-Shirt Breathing (Simple Breathing Technique)
- Diaphragmatic Breathing / Belly Breathing Techniques
- Alternate Nostril Breathing (Yogic Breathing)
- The Yawning Trick
- The Hot Air Balloon Method
- Breathwork-Assisting Devices to Manage Anxiety
Most of these breathwork methods for anxiety work by prolonging exhalation and slowing our respiratory rate. Some even tap into meditation to further help us relax.
Let's dive into each so you can try them yourself!
4-7-8 breathing is one of the best breathing exercises for anxiety and stress. It's also one of the easiest.
Here's how to use this simple breathing technique:
- Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds
- Repeat the process as needed to help with anxiety
Not only is this method easy to remember (the technique is in the name!), it's extremely effective for reducing feelings of anxiety. The key benefit of breathing exercises like this is that they slow your breathing rate by prolonging exhalation. This simple practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down when we're feeling anxious.
The Paper Bag Method
Okay, you've definitely seen this one before in movies and TV shows...
Ever notice an anxious character hyperventilating into a paper bag to stop anxiety or panic attacks? While panic attacks and anxiety often have us feeling shortness of breath, in reality, we're getting too much oxygen. "Hyperventilating" means over-breathing. Rapid, shallow breathing leads to something called respiratory alkalosis; this means we have too much oxygen, and not enough carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.
With our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels out of whack, we experience even more symptoms of anxiety. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of panic. To help reduce anxiety, it can be helpful to practice "rebreathing" for a bit; this just means breathing in some of the air we've already exhaled. And what better way to rebreathe than by breathing into a paper bag for a bit?
While it may seem basic, this type of breathing can help reduce stress and anxiety quickly by restoring carbon dioxide levels. Some people may also benefit from watching the bag expand and contract; a reminder that they are, in fact, getting air.
Box Breathing (Navy SEAL technique)
What could be cooler than learning the breathing practice that Navy SEALs use to deal with anxiety and stress?
Seriously, these guys go through the toughest military training in the world. If this breathing pattern is good enough to hone their body and mind, it's good enough for me. Fortunately, this highly effective breathing technique is much easier than the rest of SEAL training.
Here's how it's done:
- Breathe in for 4 seconds through your nostrils
- Hold that breath for 4 seconds
- Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds
- Wait 4 seconds before inhaling again to repeat the process
Despite its simplicity, this is one of the most effective breathing exercises for anxiety.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Pursed-lip breathing is another one of my favorite breathing exercises to try:
- Sit or lie with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed
- Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds
- Pucker or purse your lips as though about to whistle
- Exhale slowly and completely through lips
Pursed lip breathing exercises help by keeping the airway open for longer. This can make your breathing more effective by prolonging exhalation to calm the sympathetic nervous system. It's also a great way to get all of the air out of your lungs, helping to stop hyperventilation due to anxiety.
"Light and Smoke" Method
The "Light and Smoke" method is one of my favorite mindful breathing exercises to help anxiety.
Also called the relaxing breath technique, this yogic breathing technique can help relieve anxiety through meditation.
Here's how you can try this different breathing technique:
- Close your eyes and sit or lie in a comfortable position
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, visualizing a beam of positive, glowing, healing light entering your body and your lungs through the breath.
- Hold your breath for several seconds
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, visualizing the air leaving your body as a cloud of thick, dark smoke and negativity. Imagine this as being all of your worries and anxieties leaving your body
- Inhale and exhale, repeating this process until you feel less anxious
On this list, many of the breathing exercises may work better for some people than for others. If you're someone who really benefits from or enjoys meditation, this one will probably work great for you!
T-Shirt Breathing (Simple Breathing Technique)
Here's an extremely easy relaxation technique to help with any anxiety disorder.
This method is a bit like the paper bag method... minus the paper bag. While the paper bag method can work, it can also draw unwanted attention to yourself. This makes it a less-than-ideal method for some people; especially those with social anxiety.
Instead of breathing into a paper bag when you're feeling anxious, try subtly pulling the front of your shirt up over your nose and mouth. Make sure you're breathing properly by combining this technique with another on the list. People with anxiety may find this relaxing because the rebreathing counters hyperventilation. This type of breathing contributes to relaxation by allowing you to feel warm and secure as well.
Diaphragmatic Breathing / Belly Breathing Techniques
Diaphragmatic breathing, also called abdominal or belly breathing, is a deep breathing technique that engages the diaphragm muscle. This muscle is located between the chest and abdomen and is the primary muscle used for breathing. When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens and moves downward, creating more space in the chest cavity for the lungs to expand. This results in a deeper breath.
Diaphragmatic breathing is an efficient way to breathe because it oxygenates the blood and helps to expel carbon dioxide from the body. Belly breathing is often used for relaxation or stress relief because it has a calming effect on the nervous system. This type of breathing can help to slow down the heart rate and lower blood pressure.
Here's how to belly breathe:
- Take a seated position in a comfortable chair
- Place one hand on your chest or belly
- Close your mouth and breathe deeply and slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach rise as you take in air
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing your belly to fall as the air escapes
- Repeat this deep breathing exercise as needed until feeling calm
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Yogic Breathing)
Alternate Nostril Breathing, also called "Nadi Shodhana," is a breathing technique that is said to be helpful in achieving a calm and balanced state of mind. There are many benefits of Alternate Nostril Breathing, including reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep quality, and promoting better concentration. It is also said to be helpful in managing respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. If you're new to this breathing technique, it's best to start with just a few rounds and gradually increase as you become more comfortable with it.
How to do alternate-nostril breathing:
- Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes
- Place your right thumb over your right nostril and your left ring finger over your left nostril
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril, then close off your left nostril with your ring finger and release your right thumb from your right nostril
- Exhale slowly through your right nostril
- Inhale again through your right nostril, then close off your right nostril with your thumb and release your left ring finger from your left nostril.
- Exhale through your left nostril.
- This completes one round of alternate nostril breathing. Repeated as needed.
If it's more comfortable for you, you may use your middle fingers or pointer fingers instead. It's recommended to start with 3-5 rounds of nostril breathing, but do whatever feels best to you.
The Yawning Trick
While many breathing exercises can help relax us, this somewhat odd trick can reduce anxiety as well. If more traditional methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and belly breathing aren't working for you, try yawning three times in a row.
As strange as this trick sounds, it remains a great way to calm anxiety quickly. While often associated with fatigue or boredom, yawning can also be a reflexive response to low blood oxygen levels. Yawning allows us to take a deeper, fuller breath and get the oxygen our body is craving. For someone hyperventilating, this stretching of the diaphragm can help them to enter a more relaxed state.
A hidden bonus of this method: Yawning three times in a row is actually difficult. This poses a challenge for us and serves as a great way to distract our thoughts from panic or anxiety.
The Hot Air Balloon Method
If you're looking for a more simple anxiety breathing technique, this may be a good choice for you.
Here's how to do the "hot air balloon" breathing exercise:
- Take an uninflated balloon and press the open end behind your upper front teeth with your mouth closed
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, filling your lungs as much as possible
- Exhale through your mouth until all the air has left your lungs
- Repeat until you have filled the balloon or feel relaxed
If it helps, you can imagine yourself exhaling all of your stress and anxiety out and into the balloon on each exhale. With your anxiety captured in physical form, you can now pop it, dispose of it, or give it away to an unaware child.
Breathwork-Assisting Devices to Manage Anxiety
Breathwork isn't always easy. There are a number of breathwork-assisting devices invented by health professionals and backed by peer-reviewed studies.
My current favorite breathwork device to manage anxiety is the CalmiGo. This smart gadget provides multisensory stimulation to provide feedback and let you know when to inhale and exhale for optimal calming focus. It also delivers a relaxing scent such as lavender to further promote relaxation. You can read my full review of CalmiGo here, as well as receive a generous coupon code to save money on your order.
Conclusion: The Best Breathing Exercises for Anxiety and Stress
The best breathing technique for anxiety will vary from person to person. Some people may benefit from deep breathing, while others benefit more from prolonged exhalation breathing. Some people may do well timing their own breaths, while others may need a tool or device to help them with the pacing.
Ultimately, the only way to know the best breathing exercise for your anxiety is to try them all and see what works best. It may seem overwhelming, but each method should take just a few moments to master.
Do you have a favorite breathing exercise for anxiety? Let us know in the comments below!