3 Ways To Manage Anxiety With Your Breath

3 Ways To Manage Anxiety With Your Breath

You know that feeling… you can’t breathe… your heart is racing… your palms are sweaty… you’re feeling shaky… you need to get out or away…

We don’t often think about, or pay attention to, our breathing… until we struggle to breathe.

There are lots of reasons why we might struggle to breathe:

  • we’ve just been running
  • we’ve been competing in a sporting event
  • we have asthma or hay fever
  • we might be sick with a cold or virus.

Then of course there are those moments when we feel…

  • stressed, or
  • worried or
  • anxious.

What causes us to feel anxious or worried is very personal; it’s different for everybody. But the way it affects the body is common for all of us.

Anxiety is a survival mechanism. It’s an automatic response to a perceived threat.

Enhance Life Psychology Albert Park, Nonie Carr Melbourne Psychologist

It’s a physiological system that allows us to fight, flee or freeze in a situation that is threatening our physical survival.

When we feel stressed, worried, or afraid we might notice some or all of the following symptoms:

  • an increased breathing rate,
  • more shallow breathing
  • an increased heart rate
  • we might feel hot or flushed or sweaty
  • we might feel shakey
  • tenseness in our muscles, often our shoulders or neck, but it can be elsewhere
  • we might feel nauseous, or feel like we have ‘butterflies in our stomach’
  • we might be hyper-alert to noises or touch, meaning we can startle easily

These symptoms have an evolutionary purpose; they enable us to fight for our survival, or to run from the threat, or to hide from the threat.

But, in today’s world we’re not often physically threatened and the threat we perceive is inside ourEnhance Life Psychology Albert Park, Nonie Carr Melbourne Psychologist mind.

It’s hard to run or, hide from or, fight how others might think about us, or how we think about ourselves.

Running away from or avoiding something that we are afraid of, or feel anxious about, can mean we feel more anxious when faced with that something. So we need to change our approach.

Often the quickest and most effective way to immediately deal with the physical response of anxiety is to learn to manage the breath. Slowing down our breathing can calm us down enough to allow us the mental space to think more clearly about the cause of our anxiety.

Calming down by managing our breathing is not as easy as just taking some big breaths. We need to teach ourselves how to pay attention to our breath, how to slow it down, and learn what it feels like to slow our breath.

And just like anything else that takes time to master, we need to practice paying attention to our breathing, slowing it down and learning what it feels like to breathe slowly and calmly. Learning how it feels to breathe slowly and calmly makes it easier to do when worried.

It is helpful to practice these breathing exercises when you feel calm, maybe before you go to sleep, or on waking, or at any other time when you feel relaxed.

So here are 3 ways to slow your breathing…


3 Second Breath – a second hand on your watch can help
  1. Turn your attention to your breath.
  2. Exhale completely.
  3. Breathe in for 3 seconds and breathe out for three seconds.
  4. Continue this cycle of breathing for 5 minutes.
  5. You can continue doing this for as long as needed, until you notice that you are feeling calmer.
Finger Breathing – you can use your fingers to help with your breathing*
  1. Place your hands palm up on your lap and bring your first finger to your thumb.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Breathe in and out.
  3. Move your thumb to your second finger. Breathe in and out.
  4. Move your thumb to your ring finger. Breathe in and out.
  5. Move your thumb to your little finger. Breathe in and out.
  6. Now move your attention to the other hand and place the thumb of that hand on the little finger. Breathe in and out.
  7. Move your thumb to your ring finger. Breathe in and out.
  8. Move your thumb to your second finger. Breathe in and out.
  9. Move your thumb to your first finger. Breathe in and out.
  10. Then start moving your thumb back in the opposite direction, continuing with your breath.
  11. Once your back to where you started notice the rhythm of your breath. Often it is slower.
*Learnt from Todd Zemek, Clinical Psychologist
Diaphragmatic Breathing – this is best done lying on your back on the floor
  1. Place one hand on your belly and one on your upper chest.
  2. Fully exhale, empty your lungs.
  3. As you slowly breathe in start filling your lungs from the bottom and notice your hand rising.
  4. As you lungs fill up you’ll also notice your other hand raising. As your lungs become full you might notice that you can just pause before starting the exhale.
  5. Start exhaling from the bottom of your lungs noticing your hands falling one by one
  6. Continue breathing like this for 10 breathes.
  7. Pay attention to slowing the rhythm of your breath.
  8. If you feel like you need to take 1-2 shorter slow breaths, do so, but then return to your slow deep breath.

When you’ve completed practising one of these techniques pay attention to how you feel now. It is helpful to notice how you feel when breathing with a slow even rhythm. Pay attention to this sensation. This will help you to learn what it feels like to be calm.

And the last tip is to practice, practice, practice… The more you practice the more likely you are to master the process of slowing down your breath. This will make it easier to use your favourite technique when you do feel anxious.


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