Emotional Support

How to Calm Down and Relieve Anxiety with Breathwork

By: Dr. Teralyn Sell, PhD, MS, NBCC

Average reading time: 2.5 minutes

I know, I know—you breathe every single moment of every single day. But, is your breath intentional or is it just survival? You can actually have control of your breath and use it to your advantage!

Your Breath’s Relationship with Adrenaline

Did you know that your breath is tied to your heart rate and your heart rate is tied to whether or not you start pumping adrenaline? Why is that important? When adrenaline begins to pump, our prefrontal cortex will go ‘offline’ and we can’t really think through things very well.

It does this because if you were actually being chased by a bear, you wouldn’t want to stop and make a ‘rational’ decision—you would want to just RUN! So, when our thinking brain is offline, that is when we say and do things we wish we wouldn’t have said and done. That is also where anxiety lives!

How Breathwork Can Help You Manage Stress and Anxiety

This gets even better: If you can control your breath, you control your heart rate and you control adrenaline. This means that you can keep your thinking brain online and control your stress and anxiety!

However, there is a slight catch. You have to do breathing for about 5–7 minutes for your body to know it can chill out and not produce the adrenaline. It’s also interesting to note that the exhale is the most important part of your breath, because it lowers the heart rate (while the inhale increases the heart rate). Cool, right?

Maybe you aren’t as pumped about this information as I am, but I’m hopeful that you will soon get there, too! Imagine being able to change your life just because you learned to breathe correctly before and during times of stress and anxiety. Imagine being able to change your kids’ lives because you taught them this totally sweet tool! Are you in yet?

Our bodies are massively complicated and all of our systems are connected. But this one simple method of breathing can actually help you change your anxiety and stress level. Now, make sure you practice this a lot even when you don’t need it. Why? Have you ever showed up to a competition without practicing first? Of course you wouldn’t! This is no different.

You can’t show up to a stressful time or an anxiety attack and use breathing for the very first time. It won’t work and you will abandon it. So, instead, get to practicing it frequently. Use it on the hour every hour. Use it at a stop light or when you pull in the driveway. You get the drift: Sneak in breathing throughout the day and your nervous system will thank you for it.

Here is the down and dirty simple breathing technique that will work every time, if you let it!

First of all, please find a comfortable place to sit (or even lay flat) on the floor or on your bed. Go ahead, find that place. When you’re there, put one hand on our chest and one hand on your stomach.

When you take a big, deep breath in, I want you to envision that you’re filling your entire chest cavity up like a giant balloon, but you’re going to fill it from the bottom to the top. So your stomach area should raise up and then your chest. Let’s give that a try. Breathe in deep filling from the bottom and exhale out.

Now, on the exhale, one thing to make sure that you do is to purse your lips together (kind of like when you blow up a balloon). You don’t want to release all the air too quickly. By pursing your lips as you exhale, the action is much more controlled. So one hand on your stomach, one hand on your chest, inhale from the bottom to the top and do a controlled exhale with pursed lips.

If you’re doing this with your child, you can put a stuffed animal on your tummies and watch the stuffed animal raise up and down. It’s kind of fun and it’s a good way to teach mindfulness and breathing to a child.

Meditator’s Breath

Let’s move on to the meditator’s breath. The meditator’s breath is a really good breath technique to use when you’re feeling anxious or stressed out. It involves taking a big deep breath to the count of four and exhaling to the count of eight. As I mentioned before, the exhale is the most important part of your breath, as it lowers your heart rate. A low heart rate won’t allow you to get into fight or flight mode.

So if you’re stressed or anxious, make sure that you exhale long and slow. Let’s give it a try. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Awesome.

Try to do that for about five to seven minutes. It takes that amount of time for your body to understand that it’s okay to fully relax and that a saber-toothed tiger is not chasing you. If you have trouble counting, you can easily pull up an app on your phone or something called a metronome (there are metronome apps that will actually do the counting for you).

Square Breathing

Another breath exercise that I like is called square breathing: You breathe in and you hold, and you exhale and you hold. Envision a box…you will breathe up the left side of the box, hold across the top of the box, exhale down the right side of the box and hold across the bottom of the box (like a square).

This is a really good one if you’re really feeling stressed out and you need kind of a heavy reset. So let’s try that one. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Hold, 2, 3, 4. Exhale, 2, 3, 4. Hold, 2, 3, 4. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Hold 2, 3, 4. Exhale, 2, 3, 4. Hold, 2, 3, 4.

You can use this one in conjunction with the meditator’s breath, doing square breathing first and then sliding right into the meditator’s breath.

I hope you find this helpful and remember, keep breathing!

About the Author

Dr. Teralyn Sell, PhD, MS, NBCC holds degrees and certifications in Psychology, Counseling and Neuro-nutrition.  She encourages a holistic approach to overall wellness, which results in lasting change, a healthier state of being, and a happier you. In addition to being a Licensed Therapist, Coach and Counselor, Dr. Teralyn is the co-host of the edgy and inspiring national podcast series, Kick Off Your Damn HeelsShe and her guests provide practical, holistic solutions to combat anxiety, depression and how to improve your mental health.