Breathing techniques to try when you're feeling stressed or anxious

Just breathe.

How many times have you heard that advice when you’re in the middle of a stress-induced meltdown?

The problem, though, is that many of us don’t know how to properly breathe to calm ourselves down.

We know the general in and out thing, but when we’re anxious it’s all too easy to start speed-breathing with no way to stop, or become so self-aware of our body that we forget how to breathe without thinking about it.

Breathwork can be a handy strategy for dealing with stress and anxiety, giving us simple guides to adjust our breathing and thus boost our mood. By encouraging us to count our breaths, the exercise gives us something to focus on and makes sure our breath is properly regulated – rather than being anxious gasps for air.

Below, for National Stress Day and any other time you need them, we’ve chatted to some breathing experts (yes, those exist) to gather some simple techniques we can all master.

Breathing technique for general anxiety: Basic box breathing

This is your go-to breathing technique for dealing with anxiety.

Rebecca Dennis, the author of And Breathe, explains: ‘When people feel anxious they tend to breathe shallowly, in their chest and often hold their breath. Box breathing is a technique that can help calm thoughts, bring us back into the present moment and release tension. It’s a simple technique that’s easy to learn and one you can do anywhere.

‘Box breathing can help handle even the most stressful of situations by focusing on deep breathing. It’s a technique used by SAS to focus and ground in highly stressful situations. You can use this whether you are stuck in heavy traffic, feel some nerves before presenting or taking an exam.’

So, here’s how you do it:

  • Inhale through the nose for a count of four
  • Hold this breath for a count of four
  • Release the breath out through the nose for a count of four
  • Hold for a count of four

Easy, right? You can do this cycle as many times as you like, making sure to focus on breathing from the lower belly instead of the upper chest.

Rebecca suggests placing one or both of your hands on your abdomen or sides to feel the lower part of your belly rise as you breathe in.


Breathing technique to de-stress: The Double Calm Breath

The double calm breath is one often used over at Breathpod, a breathwork coaching organisation.

Breathpod founder Stuart Sanderman talks us through the technique, which is done simply by doubling the length of the exhale to the inhale.

  • Inhale through the nose for a count of four
  • Exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight
  • Inhale for a count of five through the nose
  • Exhale through pursed lips for a count of 10
  • Inhale through the nose for a count of six
  • Exhale through pursed lips for a count of 12

If the increase in lengths is difficult, don’t panic. You can stick to inhaling for four and exhaling for eight – do whatever makes you feel most relaxed.

Breathing technique to deal with anxiety ahead of meetings: Bee Breath

The Bee Breth helps you tune out distractions and get you feeling calm and confident. Use it before a social gathering or a meeting to soothe that negative mental monologue.

  • Sit up straight with eyes closed and a gentle smile
  • Place tips of index fingers against the cartilage between your cheek and ear
  • Inhale deep and steady through the nose
  • Exhale, and as you do make a bumble-bee humming sound – ‘mmmm’ rather than ‘buzzzz’
  • Repeat this five times


Breathing technique to deal with anxiety in crowds: Alternative Nostril Breathing

Stuart recommends trying this on your commute to feel centred and calm in crowds.

You can do this in a private space, too, though, in case you feel a bit awkward pressing your nose in front of a load of strangers.

Here’s how:

  • Sit comfortably, spine straight, rest left hand on lap and bring right hand to face make a peace sign
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril
  • Pause as you close your left nostril with your right ring finger and open right nostril
  • Release breath slowly through right nostril, pausing briefly at end of exhale
  • Inhale through right nostril slowly and steadily.
  • Pause as you close right nostril with right thumb and open left nostril
  • Release breath slowly through left nostril
  • Repeat for five to ten cycles

Try to keep the length of inhales and exhales consistent – a count of five can help.


Breathing technique to unwind after work: 5pm Breathing

Richie, better known as The Breath Guy, says 5pm Breathing is meant for the ‘joyous moment where we get to knock off work, relax, and let our hair down’.

He says: ‘It also stands for five breaths per minute and is designed to help you wind down and de-stress your internal systems.’

  • Start in a seated or lying down position
  • Put one or both hands over your belly button so you can feel the movement of your abdomen
  • Inhale for four seconds through your nose – you should feel your hands rise or move outwards
  • Exhale slowly for six seconds through your nose. No need to empty your lungs all the way, just exhale slowly until your lungs feel comfortably empty.
  • Hold your breath for two seconds
  • Repeat this cycle ten times

Breathing technique to help you get back to sleep

If you can’t drift off or your stress is keeping you up at night, try this technique to help slow the mind and increase calmness.

  • Inhale through the nose for a count of four
  • Hold that breath for a count of six
  • Exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight
  • Repeat four times

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