How to Use Breathwork to Calm Anxiety

Mindfulness teachings ask us to move closer towards discomfort, to feel our feelings fully, and to contact the present moment just as it is with the offer of feeling more alive, grounded, and connected. But what happens when those feelings feel like they're just too much to bear, or the overwhelm is too great to lean into? In these moments breathwork can be tremendously helpful in calming the flood of chemicals coursing through our mind and body during anxiety storms. These exercises can be used quickly on the spot, in the midst of the big feelings. They can also be used to steady the mind some before diving into meditation. Or even just anytime throughout the day when you need a quick reminder to ground in the present.


01. Breathe Into the Anxiety

Instructions: Drop into your body, notice where you're feeling the anxiety most strongly. Take a moment to notice what the anxiety feels like physically. We're not thinking about the anxiety here, we're feeling into it somatically. Notice it as a constellation of sensations, maybe imagine tracing an imaginary line around your anxiety. Now as you take a deep breath in, imagine breathing into the space in your body where the anxiety is present. When you exhale, imagine letting some of that anxiety go with the letting go of your breath. Breathing into the anxiety again, maybe you imagine breathing space, warmth or kindness into the anxiety. Breathing out, sensing expansion, and maybe some more letting go. Continue this practice for as many breaths or moments as you'd like.

  • Sense where you're feeling anxiety most strongly in your body

  • On the inhale, breathe into the anxiety, creating some space

  • On the exhale sense some of that anxiety being let go, or softening a bit.

  • Repeat

02. 4-7-8 Breathing

This exercise was created by Dr. Andrew Weil. It uses counting, pausing between the inhale & exhale, and lengthening the exhale. Find a quiet place to practice, or use this one on the spot when anxiety hits. Some studies have shown that increasing the exhalation can be particularly helpful in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is what's responsible for the body's "rest & digest" state (vs sympathetic nervous system that's associated with fight/flight). Breathe in for the count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale for 8. Repeat.

  • Breathe in for 4 seconds

  • Hold for 7 seconds

  • Exhale for 8 seconds

  • Repeat

More info about the benefits of extended exhalations on calming our nervous system's:

03. Arms Up & Down

Sometimes having some element of physical movement can be especially helpful in calming our anxiety. So for this exercise, start with your arms down at your side. As you inhale raise both arms up and out until your hands meet over your head. On the exhale allow your arms to gently, smoothly fall back down towards your side. Continue for 3 full breaths, or for as long as it's helpful to practice.

  • Arms by your side, on the inhale raise your arms out and up until your hands meet overhead.

  • Exhaling, steadily lower your arms back to your side.

  • Repeat for 3 full breaths or more as needed.

04. Five Finger Breathing

This exercise is lovely because it calls upon the use of multiple sensory elements, making it even more grounding than simple deep breaths (which are great too!). Hold your left hand out with fingers slightly spread apart. You'll be using your right pointer finger to trace your left hand, following the rhythm of your slow deep breaths in and out. Starting with your right pointer finger at the outer base of your left pinky finger. As you slowly trace your finger upward along your pinky, breathe in deeply. When you reach the top, start a deep exhale as you trace downward to the inner base of your pinky. Continue with this pattern; breathing in-trace up the next finger, breathing out-trace down the finger, until you've reached the outer base of your thumb.

  • Trace each finger on your left hand with your right pointer finger, starting with your left pinky finger.

  • As you slowly trace up the outer edge of your pinky, breathe in deeply. When you reach the top of your pinky, start tracing downward along the inner side of your pinky as you deeply exhale.

  • Continue tracing and breathing until you get to the outer edge of your thumb.

05. Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing was one of the first breathwork practices I was introduced to. You may have come across it in a yoga class, as it’s a form of yogic breathing, or pranayama. If your nose is feeling stuffy, you might want to grab a tissue before starting! In case you're more of a visual learning, here's a link to video instructions from yoga teacher Adriene Mishler.

  • Get settled in a comfortable seated position. You can close your eyes or soften your gaze downward.

  • Bring your pointer finger and middle finger on your right hand together, resting the tips of these fingers gently between your eyebrows. Take a deep breath in and out through your nose.

  • Using your right thumb, close your right nostril, and slowly inhale through your left nostril at a steady pace.

  • Close your left nostril with your ring finger and pause for a moment (both nostrils are closed at this point).

  • Release your thumb, keeping your left nostril closed with your right ring finger, and exhale slowly, and fully through your right nostril.

  • Continue to keep your left nostril closed with the ring finger, and slowly inhale through the right nostril.

  • At the top of the inhale cover your right nostril with your right thumb, and hold for a moment.

  • Release your ring finger, and slowly exhale through your left nostril.

  • Start by repeating for about 5 cycles, trying to keep the breath lengths consistent, and allowing your mind to keep it's focus on the breath.

Cases When Breathing Exercises May Not Be Helpful

A quick note on when breathing exercises may not be the go to exercise for you. For some people, mindfulness of breath can bring upon feelings of dizziness, lightheadedness, or even increased feelings of anxiety. You may also want to check in with your doctor if you're pregnant or have any other medical conditions, to make sure breathing exercises are ok for you. If any of the above is the case for you, know that there a endless other mindfulness exercises out there that could be a good fit for you.

Your Breath is Always With You.

A friendly reminder that we’re not trying to get rid of, or avoid our anxiety. We’re changing how we relate to our anxiety (more on that in this post), and what better tool to use than one that you always have available to you!? Breathwork can be a kind pathway to tend and care for our anxious places. So these breathing exercises are here for you to try next time your nervous system starts to get flooded by anxiety, or if you’re just looking to gather yourself a bit before diving into meditation. Play around with the different options and see what works best for you!