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Use Your Breath to Reduce Anxiety

August 11, 2019 George Abitante

Take a deep breath for anxiety right now, then ask yourself how many times you took a deep breath today. What about this past week? I've been engaging in self-reflection about my breathing this past week, and I was surprised to find that I had no idea how many deep breaths I'd taken. I enjoy meditating and have found deep breathing helpful for staying calm when I'm handling a lot of stress, but I haven't made a conscious effort to breathe deeply in recent weeks. The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that deep breathing is not just a great way to relax, but our breath is how we communicate with our anxiety. 

Communicate With Your Anxiety Through Breath

When you notice you're feeling anxious, I'm guessing that the first thing you do is try telling yourself to stop. You may say things like, "This has happened before, I'm safe!", or "I know there's nothing I need to worry about", but I'm guessing your anxiety doesn't just go away when you tell yourself that. Part of the process of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is learning to challenge your anxious thoughts and identify when your thinking is inaccurate. While this addresses the cognitive component of your anxiety, you can also challenge your anxiety with a very special tool: your breath. In the same way that we address thoughts that arise from anxiety with countervailing thoughts, we can address feelings of anxiety (like feeling sick to your stomach) with the breath. 

Your breath provides the means by which you can communicate with your anxiety and let it know that you are safe. When your body is telling you to feel anxious, you need to explain that you are actually safe in a way that it can understand. Anxiety operates quickly in order to protect us, but it doesn't always activate at the right time. When that happens, it can be difficult for your body to know that you're actually safe, and deep, slow breaths are a great way to let your body know that it doesn't need to be on the alert. As with any skill, learning to communicate with your anxiety takes practice, so please find my thoughts below for how to start your practice. 

Learning to Communicate with Anxiety Through Breath

It's important to practice deep breathing when you're not anxious so that you have it at the ready when you do experience anxiety. I start either in an upright, seated position or laying on my back in bed. For each breath, I inhale through my nose and expand my stomach until my lungs feel full, then slowly release air through my nose. With each breath, I inhale and exhale more slowly, gradually increasing the time I spend on each breath.

As I breathe, I stay focused on the sensation of breathing. After several breaths, I often notice that my mood has improved, even when I am already calm, and that my mind feels more at ease. Although I like to take at least 10 breaths at a time, remember that you can engage with your breath for any amount of time. 

 

Creating space in your workday, your home life, or your free time to engage with your breath is an excellent way to communicate with your anxiety and cultivate calm in yourself. Please share more ways you communicate with your anxiety, or use your breath to calm anxiety, below.  

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, August 11). Use Your Breath to Reduce Anxiety , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/8/use-your-breath-to-reduce-anxiety



Author: George Abitante

George is a Master's Student in Clinical Psychology at Northwestern University and is focused on improving the efficacy and accessibility of treatments for depression and anxiety. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lizanne Corbit
says:
August, 11 2019 at 11:08 pm
I think the idea of not only using the breath as a tool but using the breath as a tool specifically to better communicate with your anxiety is wonderful. Breathwork is so powerful, and just the act of bringing our attention to our breath can be so positive for shifting perspective and moving away from anxiety, but I love that this takes that a step further. Excellent read.
August, 12 2019 at 8:10 am
Hi Lizanne,

Thanks for your kind and insightful words. I appreciate you bringing up that using the breath can not only allow us to engage with our anxiety, but it can also allow us to disengage from anxiety. This is an important gap that I did not address, and one we should keep in mind for developing healthy coping strategies for anxiety!

George

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