• Breathing is an excellent tool to help calm yourself if you notice your reactions are becoming stressed, irritable or anxious

  • Whilst you would normally breathe without much awareness, you can bring it within your conscious control and better use of it when you need to react differently

  • If you are living with overwhelming anxiety, find a therapist here

Difficult, stressful or traumatic situations often cause shallow breathing, holding of the breath, tight anxious breathing or over-breathing and panic attacks. Negative beliefs and unresolved and non-discharged emotions held in the body from all kinds of difficult situations or trauma create a build up of toxins and breathing properly can help to release them.

It’s helpful to remember:

  •  each time you breathe in you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to prepare for action 
  • when you breathe out you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which slows down the heart
  • If you slow down the out-breath to about double the length of the in-breath you will start to feel more in-control and much calmer

The importance of breathing properly

Breathing properly, as a tool, is largely overlooked. We breathe in good vital energy that feeds our organs and all of our systems, oxygenating the blood and killing anaerobic bacteria viruses and oxidizing toxins. We exhale carbon dioxide (which is acidic) and unwanted and stuck energies.

People with dysfunctional breathing have poorer oxygen levels. This happens as most people do not breathe out fully thereby not allowing the correct exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Thus even if they were to breathe in fully, which most people do not, they would get just a fraction of oxygen needed, as the exchange is all important. People with poor oxygen levels have poorer brain functioning, weakened cellular strength, deteriorated detoxifying and immune systems, strained nervous systems, poorer digestion and therefore poor absorption of nutrients and they often get sick more often or stay sick longer.

Posture is important too. The diaphragm needs an upright posture. As you inhale the muscle moves downward. If you are partially bent over as you exhale upward, it has no smooth passage. The diaphragm muscle therefore fails to make its full up and down journey. If it is underused, like any muscle it will shrink, and when it shrinks, it will not drive a good air exchange. The most important thing is to get the diaphragm functioning fully. 

Lung expansion is usually second in importance to a healthy diaphragm in breathing. The heart sits above the diaphragm, and the liver and kidneys are situated below. The spine and rib cage are linked to the diaphragm, so as they move, so can the diaphragm. When the diaphragm functions fully and travels the correct distance, it massages our vital organs, which are vital for good health.

Here are some special breathing techniques to eliminate anxiety:


Drinking Straw Exercise

Obtain a straw or imagine having one. Take a gentle but deep breath. Place straw to mouth and close mouth around straw. Slowly exhale very slowly. Don’t blow. Just exhale until your lungs are 80 percent empty, then remove straw, close mouth and slowly exhale the last twenty percent through your nose. 

Allow the in-breath to come, and take three normal breaths to normalise breathing. Then repeat the exercise. 

Do this for ten minutes a day for calming, helping breathing difficulties, meditation, addictions, etc. This technique takes your breathing reflex from stressed, fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system breathing to parasympathetic breathing. 

Chair Exercise

This will help increase lung capacity by 30% as the lungs have the most chance of expansion into the lower back, where there is the most room. 

Sit on the edge of a chair upright, place your palms on knees. Start bending your torso over your thighs and slide your hands down your legs until they are somewhere in front of your feet. 

Now fold your arms normally as if you were sitting upright, and let them hang there just in front of you. Hang your head down there, too, with your feet apart. 

Now take in twenty breaths, as slow and deep as you can, breathing into your lower back on both inhales and exhales. You will find that your stomach stays flat so the air has to expand your lungs into your lower back. 

When you have completed all twenty, or less if you’re tired or uncomfortable, slowly slide your hands (after unfolding them) back up your legs so as you gently and slowly rise to a sitting position.

Hands-on-Hips Exercise

Stand with your hands on your hip bones, thumbs pointing out over the kidney areas and fingers over either sides of the tummy. Exhale fully and squeeze your hands tight, resisting as you inhale. Let go, breathe normally and repeat. Do this 10 to 15 times.

The Vagus Breath

The autonomic nervous system (both the SNS & PNS) works together with the vagus nerve.

To activate the vagus nerve, relax your shoulders and relax your jaw. Allow a deep belly inhale to the count of four. Exhale through your mouth whilst making a pleasurable sound to the count of six. The pleasurable sound should start with a “Ha” sound, not an “Ah” sound. The “Ha” sound expels the out-breath more fully. It is this pleasurable sound combined with the out-breath that helps to activate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system.

Doing 10 sets of five vagus breaths or more a day trains your brain to release calming oxytocin or vasopressin hormones instead of adrenaline. It gives the message of peace to the mind and body. 

Linda Newbold is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Surrey

Further reading

Therapist advice for health anxiety and OCD

5 ways to manage overwhelming emotions

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for anxiety, stress and depression

How I turned my anxiety into creativity

10 ways mindfulness improves your health

9 ways to cope with social anxiety