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Anxiety Breathing Technique

Anxiety is no fun. We all know this. We get anxious over things big and small and, with hope, the anxiety passes fairly quickly. Excessive anxiety and worry is a whole other animal. It completely takes over your life, nothing seems to work to make it go away. Talk therapy, medication, exercise – it feels like those only mask the symptoms instead of solving them. But, that’s where many are mistaken.

A Real Life Story

I had a client once with very severe anxiety. According to my client, the worst bout of anxiety she had lasted an intense 3 weeks. She had this overwhelming feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach daily; she couldn’t sleep; she literally couldn’t eat because she had no appetite; she was mean to family and friends because she was so caught up in her own head, unable to stop thinking about her trigger; she broke out in tears regularly. She was completely beside herself and developed a subsequent depression because of all of the stress from the anxiety. What a vicious cycle!

In therapy, we initially worked on breathing until she was able to master it and, this was the biggest help to her because she didn’t need me, or anyone, to do it with her and no one knew she was doing it when she needed to use it. One of the core components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is breathing; learning how to breathe through the anxiety is one way to attack it. Several therapists will tell you they made this breathing exercise up on their own or they modified it to make it “better,” but it’s all the same and you could find several variations of it online if you search for CBT breathing. The first step is to figure out if you’re a “belly breather” or a “chest breather.”

Belly or Chest?

The easiest way to do that is to put one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. What’s rising? If your tummy is rising, then you’re a belly breather; if you chest is rising, then you’re a chest breather. If you’re a chest breather, you need to practice belly breathing and the first step to that is to push your belly in and out and then pair it with your breathing. Once you master that, you can move on to the next step.

Now that you can belly breath, the first step in belly breathing is to inhale s l o w l y. I’m talking slow – slower than you think you’re doing it already. Then you hold your breath – some say for 1 second, others say for 3 – do what feels comfortable for you. Then you exhale   s l o w l y, again, slower than you think. Finally, you hold your breath again for the same amount of time. Repeat this a few times, and you’ve got your belly breathing down. If you do 3 repetitions of this breathing exercise, it should take you a minimum of 30 seconds.

If you do it in less than 30 seconds, you’re going too fast and you need to slow down. You should immediately feel a sense of relief no matter what level of anxiety you are experiencing. The final step is practice. Like everything, practice makes perfect. You want to practice belly breathing when you’re not anxious so that when you are, the breathing will come naturally and will work to lessen your anxiety faster.

What’s going on here?

Why does this work? Because when you’re anxious, your breathing speeds up and typically will come from your chest. This is shallow breathing. Shallow breathing makes it so that your lungs are not getting the full amount of oxygen they should be getting. Shallow breathing doesn’t exchange an even amount of oxygen for carbon dioxide, making you feel short of breath and more anxious. By belly breathing, you’re engaging your diaphragm and allowing your lungs to get the full amount of oxygen and to exchange that oxygen for the carbon dioxide. In turn, this type of breathing lowers your blood pressure and slows your heart rate, thus relieving your anxiety.

We all deal with anxiety. Whether it’s excessive or not, it still shows up and it still has the potential to ruin our day. But, with this breathing technique under your belt, you have a quick, discrete way to reduce that anxiety and, possibly, make it go away altogether.

If you or a loved one are experiencing anxiety, excessive or not, and want live help with this breathing exercise or just want to talk, give me a call or an email. I’m happy to help in any way that I can!


Copyright © 2018 Michelle Dabach, LMFT. All Rights Reserved