Many people do not breathe normally when they are anxious; this is particularly true if they feel especially afraid or panicked. Learning to deliberately return your breathing to more normal rhythms when anxious can help reduce the physical, embodied aspects of anxiety – which can feel better in its own right, as well as reduce feedback loops coming from the body that intensify anxiety.
Inhale for four seconds and exhale for at least four seconds. Try to do this for at least four minutes.
- Sit or lie down, placing one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
- Inhale through your mouth or nose for 4 seconds, then exhale through your mouth or nose for at least 4 seconds (longer exhalations are okay).
- Feel your belly gently expand during the inhalation and return to normal during the exhalation.
- Inhale and exhale smoothly and try to avoid gulping or gasping for air.
- Repeat this practice for at least 4 minutes. (4 minutes is the amount of time needed to restore normal carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the body.) Practicing for longer than four minutes is also good and can help increase your relaxation.
- At first it can be hard to do this practice when you are very anxious. Therefore it can be helpful to practice 2-3 times a day – when you are not especially anxious – for a few days to get used to it and be able to effectively use this practice when highly anxious.
Controlled breathing is a method used to treat anxiety commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy. The method presented here was adapted from a controlled breathing exercise created by psychologists Christine Padesky and Dennis Greenberger found in their book, Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think.
If you begin to feel lightheaded or dizzy, stop this breathing exercise.
Some people find awareness of the body – and in particular, awareness of the breath – disturbing, even alarming. If you find that awareness of breathing is so uncomfortable that you cannot do this method, explore other methods for managing and reducing anxiety.
If you struggle with panic or anxiety attacks, seek professional help and do not rely on this method solely to reduce your anxiety.
Guided video demonstrating controlled breathing (instructions are slightly different than this method):