As someone who’s battled with anxiety, chronic stress, and depression for a large portion of her adult life, I’m no stranger to the feeling of not being able to breathe properly—to that familiar constriction, clutching at the chest as panic descends.
Not realizing just how anxious you are until you lash out in anger, usually at a loved one, or get overcome with irritation at a complete stranger for keeping you waiting longer than you deem necessary.
These overwhelming feelings – of fear, anger, despair, shame – they don’t mean you’re a bad person. They’re simply symptoms of a root cause: ongoing anxiety that can flare up at the slightest upset.
The good news is, you can learn to control and manage that anxiety. One way is through the foods you eat and by taking certain supplements, such as probiotics – because, as research shows, the gut microbiome has a big impact on mental health.
You are what you eat, after all, and if you’re eating inflammatory foods from a state of stress – while on the bus to work or at your computer – well, that food isn’t offering the kind of nourishment you need.
The role of the breath
Another way to manage that anxiety is through mindfulness, meditation, and specific breathing exercises, known in yoga as “pranayama.” In Sanskrit, prana is the word for “life-force energy” – in Chinese medicine, it’s qi – while the word Yama means “control.” So these pranayama exercises involve regulating the breath to control your life-force energy.
In fact, the respiratory system is the only system in your body over which you have control. Simply by taking deep and slow breaths, you stimulate the vagus nerve – which activates the parasympathetic response of your autonomic nervous system, or “rest and digest” mode.
This gives your sympathetic nervous system a break – the “fight or flight” mode, in which you may find yourself stuck during times of stress. The vagus nerve is connected to all your major organs, so stimulating it affects the rest of the body.
That’s why, on a physical level, breathing exercises can regulate blood pressure levels, expand lung capacity, boost circulation, and improve digestion. On a mental/emotional level, they lower levels of inflammation and raise serotonin levels to promote feelings of calmness, groundedness, and positivity.
I use a daily pranayama practice to help me cope with anxiety and also to treat my long-term alopecia. It hasn’t magically made hair grow back, but it has helped me find acceptance and peace with my condition. Plus, it gives me energy in the mornings rather than having to turn to things like caffeine or sugar – which I know, from experience, make my anxiety much worse!
Three simple exercises for stress
Here are my favorite pranayamas to reduce anxiety. In each case, consistency is key – so try and practice them every day, at the same time if possible! Of course, you can also do them at any point when you’re feeling anxious, too.
1. Alternate nostril breathing
This is my favorite pranayama technique – not just for reducing stress but also for helping me get to sleep! The yogis believed that this exercise balances out our “yin and yang” energies.
Since most of us have too much “yang” energy (our fiery, fast, masculine side), we often find it hard to relax and unwind into our slower, more intuitive, and cooling yin or feminine side. We need both, of course, but this exercise helps to balance out those energies – so you won’t be too hyperactive or too lethargic, either!
If you’re not into the whole yin/yang thing, this is still a great exercise to practice – simply because it focuses your mind on the physical technique and away from your worries, even if only for 5 minutes!
The downside is, it’s not really one to do in public – at least without attracting strange looks!
What to do:
- Bring your right hand up towards your face, folding your index finger and middle finger into your palm. You’ll be using your thumb and your ring finger to close up each nostril, one by one.
- To start, close up your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril for a count of 4.
- Hold the breath and close up both nostrils for a count of 8.
- Next, close up the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril for a count of 8.
- Repeat on the other side. Inhale right for 4 – retain for 8 – exhale left for 8. That’s one full round.
- Do 5 rounds of this in total, and then return to your natural breath. Notice how much calmer and lighter you feel.
2. Full yogic breath
This is a very simple – yet super effective – technique to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. In doing so, you can slow down your heart rate and increase oxygen flow to your brain for a quick energy and mood boost.
You’re also activating the insula part of your brain, which triggers a more relaxed, calmer state of being. Try this in the morning before you get up and/or before going to sleep. Like the other exercises, you can do it whenever you’re feeling stressed – although it is a little easier to feel into each area when you’re lying down.
What to do:
- Lie down, with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance, your toes rolling out and heels rolling in. Let your arms fall away from your body, palms facing up. If you’re able, close your eyes.
- Next, focus your attention on your abdomen, feeling the breath rise and fall in this area alone. If a visualization helps, imagine you’re filling a balloon in the belly.
- After a few deep breaths here, shift your attention to your ribcage. Feel your breath expand outwards and contract inwards, just like an accordion. Take 3 deep breaths into this area.
- Then bring your awareness to your chest, watching it rise and fall with the breath. (This is the area we shallow breathe into when anxious, so it may be very familiar!) Even so, take 3 full breaths here.
- Finally, put all 3 parts together in the full yogic breath. Start by breathing into the abdomen, then ribs, then chest. Pause at the top for a few counts before exhaling from the chest, into the ribs, and down into the abdomen (again, retain at the bottom for a few counts).
- Repeat this several times, and if you want to count your breath, you could inhale for 4, hold for 3, exhale for 8 and hold for 3. At this pace, you’d be experiencing about 2 breaths per minute – after 10 minutes of practicing this way, you’ll probably feel a whole lot calmer than before.
3. Breath through a square
You can try this exercise at any time – sitting, lying down, standing, or walking. You don’t even have to close your eyes if you’re in public; simply lower your gaze to keep it soft.
It’s a particularly good exercise for visual learners and for those who find it hard to focus on their breath without a guided visualization.
What to do:
- Choose your position for the exercise and close your eyes, if possible (if not, that’s ok, too.)
- Bring the image of a square to your mind’s eye. It can be any color or size you like.
- Next, picture your inhale moving up one side of the square. The exhale that follows moves along the top. Then your inhale moves down the other side before your exhale moves along the bottom.
- Continue breathing along each side of the square for 3 more rounds.
- Next, see if you can change that image, the one of the square, into a rectangle. This time, your inhale moves up the short side of the rectangle. On the exhale, it moves along the top. Inhale down the other short side and exhale along the bottom.
- Now that your exhale is twice as long as your inhale continue this visualization for 3-5 more rounds.
- Whenever your mind wanders, just bring your attention back to the breath and start with a new inhale, up the short side of the rectangle.
Final thoughts: Don’t forget to breathe
Yes, the breath comes to us automatically. But the funny thing is, so many of us have forgotten how to breathe properly – in the way it was intended, to fill our abdomen and the entirety of our lungs rather than just the uppermost part.
Shallow breathing isn’t going to calm you down; it’ll simply flood you with more adrenalin, more cortisol (the stress hormone), and more feelings of panic.
So if you’re feeling anxious and notice you’re a) holding your breath or b) breathing in ragged gasps, simply pause what you’re doing and take a few long and deep breaths. Focus on making the exhale longer than the inhale, even doubling it if you can – and feel what a difference the act of breathing properly can make!
Enjoy the healing power of the breath. It costs you nothing – and its benefits for your physical and mental health are priceless.