If you feel breathless due to anxiety, there are breathing techniques you can try to alleviate symptoms and start feeling better.
Let’s look at several you can do on at any point during your day or build into longer moments for yourself.
Inhaling deeply may not always calm you down. Taking a deep breath in is actually linked to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response. But exhaling is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which influences our body’s ability to relax and calm down.
Taking too many deep breaths too quickly can actually cause you to hyperventilate. Hyperventilation decreases the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows to your brain.
When we feel anxious or under stress, it’s easier to breathe too much and end up hyperventilating — even if we’re trying to do the opposite.
- Before you take a big, deep breath, try a thorough exhale instead. Push all the air out of your lungs, then simply let your lungs do their work inhaling air.
- Next, try spending a little bit longer exhaling than you do inhaling. For example, try inhaling for four seconds, then exhale for six.
- Try doing this for two to five minutes.
This technique can be done in any position that’s comfortable for you, including standing, sitting, or lying down.
Breathing from your diaphragm (the muscle that sits just beneath your lungs) can help reduce the amount of work your body needs to do in order to breathe.
To learn how to breathe from your diaphragm:
- For comfort, lie down on the floor or bed with pillows beneath your head and knees. Or sit in a comfortable chair with your head, neck, and shoulders relaxed, and your knees bent.
- Then, put one hand under your rib cage and one hand over your heart.
- Inhale and exhale through your nose, noticing how or if your stomach and chest move as you breathe.
- Can you isolate your breathing so you bring air deeper into your lungs? What about the reverse? Can you breathe so your chest moves more than your stomach?
Eventually, you want your stomach to move as you breathe, instead of your chest.
Practice belly breathing
- Sit or lie down as described above.
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach somewhere above your belly button.
- Breathe in through your nose, noticing your stomach rise. Your chest should remain relatively still.
- Purse your lips and exhale through your mouth. Try engaging your stomach muscles to push air out at the end of the breath.
For this type of breathing to become automatic, you’ll need to practice it daily. Try doing the exercise three or four times a day for up to 10 minutes.
If you haven’t been using your diaphragm to breathe, you may feel tired at first. It’ll get easier with practice though.