The Best Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety

the best breathing techniques
Photo by Kelvin Valerio

How to Use Simple Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress

We all know, even if just at some intuitive level, how important regulating our breathing is. Most of us have been told to “count to 10” or “take a deep breath” at some time. Maybe it was a time you were anxious about giving a presentation. Or perhaps it was when you felt yourself losing your temper. But most likely you were asked to slow your breathing in response to some stressful situation.

There is an ever-growing body of research that backs up these practices. It turns out that controlling breathing is one of the most effective ways to relieve stress. And, the good news is, learning a technique to regulate your breathing as a stress reliever, is simple to achieve.

As a leader, breathing techniques are something I use (and teach others to use) on a regular basis because they don’t just relieve anxiety, they also improve thinking and decision-making.

Why is breathing so effective at reducing stress and anxiety?

So why is breathing so good at reducing anxiety? Well, neuroscience research demonstrates that slow breathing techniques have positive effects on our central nervous system and psychological state. Using effective breathing techniques to slow respiration increases positives such as comfort, relaxation, vigour, and alertness. It does this while reducing negatives such as anxiety, stress, depression, anger, or confusion.

How does this happen? Physiologically, slowing breathing promotes autonomic (involuntary) responses in our nervous system. For example, changing the rate of your breathing changes your heart rate. This is due to respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Put simply, if you increase your breaths, your heart rate increases; slow your breathing and your pulse rate will also go down.

Psychologically, these responses have a positive effect. The changes to the nervous system reverse the mental as well as physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. The exact mechanism for this is still debated but the fact that this happens is no surprise neurologically. 

From “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”

Slow breathing is a sign of a parasympathetic (non-stressed) state. The central nervous system identifies slower breathing, through the vagus nerve that runs from the brain to the abdomen. The thalamus and limbic systems (the emotional centres) receive the signals. They interpret slow breathing as reflecting a low-threat situation. The subsequent change of activity in the limbic system further reinforces the parasympathetic state and also frees the pre-frontal cortex to be predominant, improving rational, creative and decision-making neurological processes (reversing amygdala hijack). 

This process moves the body and mind from the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) mode to the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state. As a result, the body moves from hyper-alert to more relaxed.

How did breathing techniques develop?

There is a long history of breathing techniques but the eastern traditions are perhaps the best known. For instance, in yoga, breathing is an essential element. The “prana” (breath or energy) is used to help achieve a meditative state. This is done through “pranayama” (“Yama” meaning control) where breathing is consciously regulated.

In western traditions, breathing techniques are not so closely linked to meditation. Controlled or paced breathing is primarily seen as a therapy for physical ailments (for example, as an aid for asthma sufferers) or for psychological benefits (such as reducing stress and improving well-being). Generally, in the Western tradition, this is removed from any religious or spiritual link. But, whatever the primary purpose of the practice, using a slow breathing technique has the same physiological and psychological benefits. 

Why should you practice breathing techniques?

Any simple slowing of your breathing is likely to have a positive effect when you are in a stressed situation. But it is worth knowing some techniques – and practising them – for at least two reasons. 

The first is that when you are in a highly stressful situation you cannot properly use your prefrontal cortex to rationally think about what you need to do. Therefore, your body relies on muscle memory and pre-existing neural pathways. If you have trained in a breathing technique before the stressful stimulus, you are more likely to be able to control your breathing while in an anxious state. That is why (if we have not practised) we often need to be told by someone to “count to 10” or “take a breath” as it is hard to think clearly for ourselves in the heat of the moment. The more one rehearses for these situations, the more likely we are to be able to deal with them effectively on our own.

The second reason is that breathing techniques are more effective. Specific regulation methods ensure that our breaths are slowed to the correct rate and for the correct duration. They also help us consciously achieve deeper breaths and override auto-motive systems to hold the breath on inhalation or exhalation.

How frequently should you practice slow breathing?

Even practising breathing for a few minutes per day will help train the body and mind. Even taking 10 slow breaths (around 2 minutes) will be beneficial.  To get the best out of a breathing technique it is most effective to either concentrate on your breathing or work towards a more meditative state, but you can practice while doing something else. Try slow breathing when you are in a queue, reading emails or watching TV. It might help in more ways than one!

How do you regulate your breathing to reduce stress?

The normal respiratory rate for adults is between 12-20 breaths per minute. Hyperventilation, the sort of breathing triggered during high stress, is usually counted as anything over 20 breaths per minute. Slow breathing is considered to be around 4-10 breaths per minute.

Most breathing techniques will allow people to achieve a slow breathing rate of between 4-10 breaths per minute. They do this by applying the principles of respiratory sinus arrhythmia and the fact that when you breathe in your heart rate speeds up, whereas when you exhale your heart rate slows down. Therefore, breathing techniques either look to elongate the exhalation or achieve the same effect by holding the breath between inhaling or expelling air. 

Which posture is best for breathing?

Most breathing techniques can be achieved when either standing, sitting, or lying down but sitting or lying down – if the situation allows it – can help with relaxing the body. It is generally good to keep your feet hip-width apart, opening the body into a neutral but relaxed posture. It is also recommended to loosen any restrictive clothing. 

Another general tip is to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathing in through your nose introduces a small restriction in the airflow that helps elongate the breath. Some yogic breathing encourages a restriction in the throat on the out-breath to achieve a similar thing.

When taking a breath, it should be deep into the lungs. You should feel the stomach move out, not just your chest, on each breath. Placing a hand on the chest and another on the stomach, to feel the movement, can help ensure that you are breathing in this way.

Which are the best, simple and easy-to-remember breathing techniques?

Here are four simple, proven and effective breathing patterns and techniques that you try:

The 5:5 breathing technique

The 5:5 breathing control technique is simply breathing in for a count of five, then out for a count of five. Keeping the count to about one number a second will mean that one full breath will take about 10 seconds and the breathing rate will be reduced to about 6 breaths per minute. 

The 5:5:5:5 breathing technique 

Having mastered the 5:5 pattern, the breathing rate can be slowed further by introducing a pause (holding the breath) at the end of the inhalation or exhalation. With this technique, one breathes in for a count of five, then holds the breath for five, then breathes out for a count of five, and again holds for a count of five. 

The 4:6 breathing technique

If holding your breath feels a little uncomfortable, then the easy alternative is to lengthen the exhalation process. The 4:6 pattern achieves this with an inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of six. With practice, the exhale can be extended further (up to about ten) but initially, a count of six is recommended. As with 5:5 breathing, aim for the count to be around one per second so the breathing rate is slowed to about six breaths a minute.

5-finger breathing technique

Another great thing to add to breathing patterns is tracing the fingers on your hand. This is often referred to as the 5-finger breathing technique and I have seen it used by school children and special forces soldiers alike, so it is definitely both easy and effective! All you do is use the finger of one hand (usually the forefinger) to trace up and down the fingers on the other hand. Move up to the tip of the finger while breathing in, then down the other side on the out-breath. 

Tracing your fingers has several key benefits. Firstly, using your hand removes the need to count your overall breaths. You know, by tracing your fingers one way you will get five breaths and another five if you work your way back. If I am feeling stressed, I usually aim for at least one complete cycle of ten breaths; from the little finger to the thumb and back. If I don’t feel relaxed enough, I simply trace my hand there and back again.

The second benefit is if you place your hand on your diaphragm you can ensure that you are taking breaths deep into your lungs. The third benefit is that you get a self-soothing effect from the touch. Physical touch increases dopamine and serotonin levels, enhancing the parasympathetic state and reducing cortisol responses to stress

Do yourself a favour: take a deep breath (and then another)!

So, if you want to reduce stress or anxiety, start by controlling your breath and reducing your overall breathing rate. Use one of the simple techniques listed above to take your breathing to below 10 breaths per minute. Then introduce the 5-finger technique to further enhance the benefits.

But even before you feel stressed, take some time, and take a breath. Take five or ten slow breaths now. I promise you will feel better for doing it and you will be better prepared for your next stressful situation.

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