By Anya Brand, Breathwork Instructor/Yoga Teacher
In this article we will explore the science of breathwork to reduce anxiety, and dive into simple breathwork healing techniques that can help you reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and panic right away.
These breathwork techniques are easy to use, you don’t need any special equipment, and you can use them to hit ‘reset’ whenever you notice that feelings of anxiety are beginning to arise.
When incorporated longer-term into a regular breathwork practice, breathwork techniques can help you to regulate your emotions and increase your physical and emotional resilience to daily stressors; positively changing the way you breathe and move through life.
If you are new to breathwork, you’ll benefit from exploring guided resources, such as our free masterclass and workshops. You can learn more about working with a breathwork instructor or undertaking breathwork training with www.breathlessexpeditions.com.au.
PRACTICE 1. Extended Exhalation Breathing to Reduce Anxiety
For many of us, it’s hard to take a deep breath. This technique will make it easier to breathe more deeply and is a good place to start. It will help to engage more movement from your diaphragm and increase your respiratory efficiency. It should never be forced; each breath should feel soft, easy and comfortable. By extending your exhalation, you are strengthening your diaphragm muscles, increasing vagal tone and heart rate variability (HRV), and therefore resilience. An extended exhalation also means you are extending your time in a relaxed, parasympathetic state, which has many benefits for your health.
Here’s how to practice:
1. Sit up so that your spine is long and straight, and chin perpendicular to the floor
2. Take a gentle breath in through your nose
3. At the top of the breath start to count out loud slowly from one to 10 whilst exhaling, over and over (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
4. As you reach the natural conclusion of the exhale keep counting but do so in a whisper, letting the voice softly trail away
5. Keep going until only your lips are moving and your lungs feel completely empty
6. Take in another gentle, generous breath and repeat
7. Continue for anywhere from 10 to 10 more cycles of breath
Once you get the hang of the practice whilst sitting, you can try it whilst walking or doing other light exercise.
PRACTICE 2. Humming Breathwork to Reduce Anxiety
This technique, called Bhramari in the world of yogic breathwork, involves humming as you exhale, which extends your exhalation and encourages diaphragmatic breathing. Humming creates a vibration in your throat and sinuses which scientists have shown increases vagal nerve activity, activating your parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response, increasing heart rate variability and reducing stress. Likewise, the extended exhalation also tones the vagus nerve and keeps you in a parasympathetic state for longer.
Nitric Oxide (N.O.) is produced in your sinuses due to the vibration created by the humming, which helps your body to dilate and constrict your blood vessels. This can improve your blood pressure and therefore your heart health.
N.O. also facilitates information transfer between nerve cells and the brain. As a result, your memory function and concentration will receive a boost. All of which promote better sleep quality, which in turn enhances the production of N.O.
Bhramari also encourages the generation of crucial neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, generally known as the “happy hormones”.
It strengthens your body’s immune system against bacterial, viral, and fungal diseases. Recently, it has been discovered that nitric oxide boost through Bhramari was effective in increasing the survival rate of COVID-19 patients.
Here’s how to practice:
- Choose a comfortable seated position
- Close your eyes and relax your face
- Place your index fingers on the tragus cartilage that partially covers each ear canal
- Gently press into the cartilage in order to block out sounds from your environment
- You can use your fingers to gently cover your eyes if you like, blocking out light
- Inhale deeply and gently through your nose
- Keeping your mouth lightly closed but with your teeth slightly apart, make a loud humming sound
- If possible, have your tongue resting on the soft palate (roof) of your mouth
- Focus on the sound and sensations of the humming
- Hum all the way to the end of the exhalation until it’s not possible to hum anymore
- Take another deep breath in through your nose and start the process again
- Start with 5 rounds and build up from there
When you have completed this practice, sit and notice how you are feeling. Notice your breathing pattern, rate and depth. Notice where the breath is now located in your body: are you breathing into your belly more than before? Is it easier to breathe more deeply and diaphragmatically?
PRACTICE 3. Diaphragmatic Breathing – Yogic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing has many benefits, as this study shows. Try breathing ‘low and slow’ by gently expanding your lower belly, ribs and side body 360 degrees as you inhale (rather than your chest) in order to further activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will dampen your response to stress and allow your body’s systems to reset.
Here’s how to practice:
1. Sit upright and relax your shoulders
2. Place both hands over your navel and slowly breathe into the belly
3. The aim is to feel your belly expand with each breath in, deflate with each breath out
4. You can use your hands as a form of resistance to gently push your belly into, this will help you to breathe more deeply
5. Practise this a few times
6. Next, move your hands up a few inches so that’s it’s covering the bottom of the rib cage
7. Focus the breath into the position of the hands, expanding the rib cage with each inhale, retracting them with the exhale. Practise for 3 to 5 breaths
8. Move hand position to just below the collarbone
9. Breathe deeply into this area and imagine your chest spreading out and then withdrawing with each exhale. Do this for a few breaths
1. Connect all these motions into one breath, inhaling into your belly, lower rib cage, then chest
2. Exhale in the opposite direction, first emptying your chest, then the rib cage, then the belly
3. It can be helpful to use your hands to feel each area as you breathe
4. Continue this sequence 10 to 12 times
PRACTICE 4: Coherent Breathwork
Coherent Breathing is a calming practice that places the heart, lungs, and circulation into a state of coherence, where all systems of the body are working in harmony and at peak efficiency. It is one of the most used techniques of breathwork to reduce anxiety and stress. The aim is to breathe at a rate of 6 full breaths per minute and you can achieve this rate by inhaling and exhaling for a count of 5 seconds (5.5 seconds if you want to be precise). Breathing at this rate maximizes your heart rate variability, reduces stress, and, according to one 2017 study, can also reduce symptoms of depression when combined with Iyengar yoga.
Here’s how to practice:
- Sit up straight, relax your shoulders and belly, and exhale
- Inhale softly through your nose for a count of 5 seconds, expanding your belly as air fills the bottom of your lungs
- You don’t have to strain to fill your lungs all the way, a typical breath will work
- Without pausing, exhale softly for 5 seconds through your nose, bringing your belly in as your lungs empty
- Each breath should feel like a circle
- Exhale slowly, also for a count of 5 seconds
- Repeat at least 10 times, more if possible
Before practising Box Breathing: if you are pregnant do not use the breath holds, likewise if you have high blood pressure or any serious medical condition including heart conditions, it is not advisable to hold your breath.
PRACTICE 5: Box Breathing 4: 4: 4: 4 Breathwork
Box breathing is a powerful but simple breathwork technique to reduce anxiety. It is a relaxation technique that aims to return your breathing to its normal rhythm after a stressful experience. It can help clear your mind, relax your body, and improve your focus. Box breathing is also known as ‘resetting the breath’ or four-square breathing, is easy to do, quick to learn, and can be highly effective in stressful situations. It was popularised by Navy Seal Commander Mark Divine who taught this technique as a way for soldiers to stay calm and focused in tense situations.
Here’s how to practice:
1. Find a comfortable position
2. Centre your attention on your breathing
3. Inhale slowly to a count of 4 seconds
4. Gently hold your breath for 4 seconds
5. Slowly exhale for 4 seconds
6. Hold your breath out for 4 seconds
7. Repeat for up to 10 minutes
As you progress with this technique you can lengthen each stage, gradually expanding your box by increasing the length of your inhales, exhales and holds. Longer exhalations will elicit a stronger parasympathetic response. Slowly progress from 4 seconds 4: 4: 4: 4 up to 10 seconds 10: 10: 10: 10.
VARIATION: Box Breathing for a Better Sleep
A variation of box breathing to more deeply relax the body that’s especially effective before sleep is as follows:
1. Inhale slowly to a count of 4 seconds
2. Gently hold your breath for 4 seconds
3. Slowly gently for 6 seconds
4. Hold your breath out for 2 seconds
5. Repeat for up to 10 minutes