Anxiety Coping Skills - Breathing Exercises

Updated on December 7, 2016
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Mark is a father of five and a caregiver for the disabled. Writing is his passion.

Overcome Anxiety Symptoms
Overcome Anxiety Symptoms | Source

Anxiety Around Us

No matter who you are or what you do, many of us will eventually be touched by anxiety. Some of us experience anxiety ourselves, whereas others support friends or loved ones who are experiencing their own challenges with anxiety.

Personally, I have been on both sides of this condition. I've suffered with clinical anxiety for the majority of my adult life, and my partner and children have all suffered with their own anxieties, as well. In such a loud world it can be easy to become overwhelmed.

I'm going to share some of the coping mechanisms I've learned from my own research as well as from the professionals I've worked with over the years. These coping mechanisms have been effective not only for me but also for my loved ones. I hope they can be helpful for you, too.

There is no cure as such. What works for you might not work for someone else. It's best to persevere, seek professional help, and learn what works best for you.


The Box Breathing Technique

This is a coping mechanism my partner swears by. The Box Breathing technique, sometimes known as the Four Square Breathing technique, is a meditative style uncomplicated enough to do any time you are feeling stressed or anxious.

Its focus is Controlled Breathing, helping to alleviate stress and calm nerves by balancing the autonomic nervous system. It allows your body to make full use of the air you take in by controlling its input into your system by counts of four.

An unexpected positive is that it also gives a slight workout to your chest and abdominal muscles.

Here's a step by step breakdown of the technique:

  1. Find a comfortable chair that helps you maintain a good posture, place your feet flat on the floor and relax your hands in your lap. The important thing is that you are comfortable whilst still sitting with good posture.
  2. Ensure the space you are using will remain quiet and peaceful for a minimum of 4 minutes. Dim the lights or close your eyes.
  3. Close your mouth and begin to breathe slowly through your nose counting to four as you inhale. Hold the breath for 4 seconds. The aim here is not to deprive your body of oxygen but to allow the air a few seconds to fill your lungs. Notice how your belly moves as you inhale.
  4. Open your mouth partially and begin to slowly exhale to the count of four and then hold your exhale for another count of four. Repeat 3-5 times or until your feel your Anxiety leaving you.

The goal here is to bring your respiratory system back into alignment and end the panicked breathing brought on by the flight or fight response your anxiety has provoked.

It is possible to perform this meditative technique in a public setting if you cannot find a quiet and private room in which to do it. You can even do it with your eyes open in these circumstances, just follow the breathing routine as you normally would. Nobody around you will be able to notice that you are using the technique as it's all internal.

Hands relaxed in the lap whilst meditating.
Hands relaxed in the lap whilst meditating. | Source

Yoga Breathing Exercises (Pranayama)

Yoga breathing exercises help in calming anxiety in a similar way to the four square technique by relaxing both breath and heart rate during fight or flight responses. The aim of Yoga is to develop a heightened sense of self realization and it promotes self development.

There are several breathing exercises taught through Yoga that are suitable to use as coping mechanisms, these are just some of the ones I personally have found the most soothing.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

  1. Sit in a upright position ensuring you are comfortable and that your posture is correct.
  2. Close your right nostril with your right thumb by placing it gently against it's opening.
  3. Begin to breathe in slowly through your left nostril.
  4. Close your left nostril with the ring finger of your right hand and remove your thumb from your right nostril.
  5. Begin to exhale slowly through your right nostril.
  6. Now inhale slowly through your right nostril.
  7. Close your right nostril with your right thumb.
  8. Exhale slowly through your left nostril.

Repeat these steps three times. The aim of this exercise is two fold when used in relation to anxiety, you're trying to shift your focus from anxious thoughts by keeping yourself busy. You are also aiming to calm your breathing and heart rate through this show of self control.

The Conscious Breath

  1. Sit in a comfortable position placing a hand on your belly and another hand on your chest.
  2. Close your eyes and breathe normally.
  3. Focus on your breathing rate, the rise and fall of your chest and how the air feels in your lungs.
  4. Sit in this position focusing on your breath for 5 minutes.

This is one of the simplest breathing exercises, it's all about shifting your attention from whatever is prompting your anxious response on to something more relaxing. Focusing on how you are breathing also helps in dealing with hyperventilation caused by anxiety.

The Bumble Bee Breath

  1. Sit in a comfortable upright position.
  2. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your chest open.
  3. From the abdomen inhale slowly and fill your lungs to capacity.
  4. Pause for 3 seconds and exhale slowly.
  5. Whilst exhaling use your tongue to make a buzzing sound, similar to that of a bee.

Repeat these steps three to five times. Like the other breathing exercises mentioned this helps you to take control of hyperventilation. It is easy to tell if you are doing this correctly as the buzzing sound you make should be soothing, like a mantra.


Anxiety and Control

The main focus of all of these techniques is self control. The more disciplined you are the easier it can be to calm down from a fight or flight response. Find out what invokes a feeling of calm for you and surround yourself with it. Immerse yourself into things that bring you peace and remember that you are not defined by your anxiety.

Self-control is not instinctive; it is a skill that can be learned. Just remember, YOU are in control.

Which Breathing Technique Listed Have You Found The Most Helpful?

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  • Amy Weintraub, Yoga Skills For Therapists: Effective Practices For Mood Management, 2012, pp. 52-74
  • Julia Kopala, When Heaven Comes... Into The Classroom, 2013, Chapter 4


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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 17 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I have found that breathing techniques are the first thing I go to when I am feeling anxious. As I breathe deeply, my heart slows down and my thoughts stop racing, then I can relax and go forward rather than being frozen in my tracks. Thanks for sharing this important principle!