9 breathing exercises to manage anxiety, reduce stress, and improve sleep
- The best
breathingexercises include deep breathing, pursed-lip breathing, and the 4-7-8 method.
- Benefits of breathing exercises include improved focus, reduced anxiety, and better sleep.
- Practice breathing exercises whenever you feel stressed, but aim for at least once or twice daily.
Breathing exercises have far-ranging benefits, including improving anxiety, sleep, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Whether you're trying to relieve symptoms of an underlying condition or you're just looking for a moment of peace and calm, each of the following nine breathing techniques offers benefits and is easy to do at home.
1. Deep belly breathing
Deep belly breathing, aka diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple, easy technique that just about anyone can try safely. It teaches you how to breathe properly using your diaphragm instead of your chest muscles. This is important since diaphragmatic breathing lends to deeper, slower breaths which are proven to help improve focus and reduce stress.
Quick tip: You can tell if you're breathing properly with your diaphragm if your shoulders don't move up and down when you breathe. Instead, your belly should move in and out.
- Find a comfortable position sitting or standing.
- Place one hand on your belly, just beneath your ribs. Place the other hand on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through the nose as your hand pushes out on your belly.
- Breathe out with pursed lips as if you were blowing out a candle.
- Use your hand to push all the air out of your belly.
- Do this between three and ten times.
2. The 4-7-8 technique
Also known as "relaxing breath," the 4-7-8 technique eases stress and anxiety as well as helps you fall asleep easier, says Trisha Smith, a breathing coach, sports chiropractor, and founder of Expand Your Human - a Lifestyle Medicine. Anyone who is experiencing anxiety or just wishes to induce calm should try the technique.
How to do it:
Throughout the duration of the exercise, hold your tongue on the roof of your mouth, behind your upper teeth, and exhale through pursed lips. This slows down your exhale, so you can easily make it longer than the inhale.
According to Smith, these are the steps to do the 4-7-8 technique:
- Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath at the top of the inhale for a count of seven.
- Exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight.
- Repeat the cycle for up to four cycles twice a day.
3. Wim Hof method
The Wim Hof breathing exercise focuses on holding deep breaths for longer periods of time than most other breathing practices.
The idea behind holding deep breaths for extended periods is that it can increase your body's response to stress, which can build resilience, says Smith. With this technique, Wim Hof has been able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts and stand covered in ice cubes for almost two hours. While anyone can benefit from the Wim Hof Method, it may be particularly beneficial for those looking to improve physical endurance.
Warning: Due to the intensity of the exercise, Wim Hof's website cautions that this technique can potentially lead you to lose consciousness. So, you should only attempt this while sitting or lying down in a safe environment.
How to do it:
According to Smith, a Wim Hof instructor, these are the steps to do the Wim Hof method:
- Take 30 to 40 deep breaths.
- Inhale the final breath as deep as you can and then exhale through an open mouth.
- Hold that exhale and avoid breathing in until necessary - how long you can do this will vary depending on your fitness level.
- Take one more big recovery breath.
4. Pursed-lip breathing
Pursed-lip breathing is a technique that slows down the breath and gives you more control over your breathing.
It can help improve symptoms of shortness of breath, asthma, and COPD, says Nevsah Fidan Karamehmet, a breathing teacher with 20 years of experience, author of The Power of Breath, and the CEO and founder of Breath Hub.
Medical term: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs. This can limit airflow and make breathing difficult.
A 2019 review looked at the impact of breathing exercises on patients with COPD. Participants had an improved respiratory rate - aka the number of breaths you take per minute - when practicing pursed-lip breathing, compared to those who didn't do the exercises.
How to do it:
According to Fidan Karamehmet, these are the steps to do pursed-lip breathing:
- Inhale through the nose normally.
- Pause and purse your lips as if you are about to whistle.
- Exhale through the mouth. Your pursed lips will control the speed.
5. Lion's breath
Lion's breath likely gets its name from the fact that it involves opening your mouth wide and sticking your tongue out and sighing - similar to how a lion yawns.
This technique exercises your vocal cords more than other breathing exercises and therefore is an ideal option for singers or people with speech impediments.
How to do it:
- Find a safe place to sit or stand and then close your eyes.
- Bring your mind inward and think for just a second about what mental stresses you want to release.
- Take a long, slow, deep inhale through your nose.
- On the exhale, stick out your tongue, bulge open your eyes, and loudly sigh with a "haa" sound.
- Do this one to three times per day.
6. Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a common breathing technique used in yoga and even used by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.
It was developed to increase airflow to both sides of your brain, says Abrams. This activates both your logical half and creative half. However, there is no scientific evidence backing this up. But there is research confirming this technique quells anxiety.
For example, in a small 2017 study, participants did alternate nostril breathing for 15 minutes before simulating public speaking. Compared to the control group, the people who did the breathing technique had lower anxiety scores.
How to do it:
According to Abrams, these are the steps to do alternate nostril breathing:
- Securely close your right nostril with your thumb and take a slow, deep inhale through the left nostril.
- At the top of the inhale, use your ring finger to securely close the left nostril pausing for a brief second, then release the right thumb and exhale from the right nostril.
- Then repeat on the other side.
- Go back and forth for two to three minutes.
7. Roll breathing
Roll breathing is a technique that teaches you to make full use of your lung capacity. It is initially practiced laying down but, once you become comfortable with it, you can do it in any position.
Warning: Some people may feel dizzy or lightheaded when they first try roll breathing. Therefore, if you feel like you may hyperventilate, slow your breathing and get up slowly.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth eight to ten times.
- As you breathe, practice filling your lungs so that your stomach expands but your chest is still.
- After eight to ten breaths, start inhaling into your lower chest, then upper chest. The hand on your belly should fall a little.
- When you exhale, make a small whooshing sound with your mouth and drop your hands from your stomach and chest down to your side.
- Do this for three to five minutes.
8. Box breathing
Box breathing is a technique that involves inhaling, holding, and exhaling the breath for equal amounts of time to calm your body. The symmetry of this practice is unique among breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 method, which typically emphasizes longer exhales than inhales.
How to do it:
According to Fidan Karamehmet, these are the steps to do box breathing:
- Slowly breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
- Hold for four.
- Breathe out through the nose for a count of four.
- Hold for four.
- Repeat as often as you would like.
9. Kapalabhati (breath of fire)
Kapalabhati, also known as breath of fire, is a breathing technique that may make you feel flush because it works your core, so much so that it can cause your face to become red, says Fidan Karamehmet.
It is a core aspect of Kundalini yoga, a type of yoga designed to re-align your chakras, or the "energy centers" in your body. While there is little scientific research into the benefits of breath of fire, anecdotal benefits include boosting circulation and improving digestion, says Fidan Karamehmet.
Warning: You should not practice breath of fire on a full stomach, says Fidan Karamehmet, since you'll be squeezing your abdominal muscles which can cause nausea or cramping.
How to do it:
According to Fidan Karamehmet, these are the steps to do kapalabhati:
- Sit or stand upright in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Place your hands on your knees or thighs with your palms facing upward.
- Exhale completely in a short burst before inhaling.
- Inhale through the nose and then exhale with a sharp burst by tightening your core.
Be sure to contract your lower abdomen to forcefully push out all the air in your diaphragm and lungs during each exhale. Focus on the exhale and the inhale will naturally happen.
While each of the above exercises varies in methodology, all provide the same benefits of focusing your attention on your breath. This can help soothe anxiety, decrease stress, and improve overall well-being.
With consistent practice, some of these exercises can even improve lung capacity and manage symptoms of COPD or asthma, such as pursed-lip breathing. However, if you feel lightheaded or dizzy during any of these exercises, catch your breath and stop until you get clearance from a medical professional.Overcome stress and anxiety with box breathing - the simple breathing exercise that only takes 16 seconds How to use grounding exercises to deal with stress, anxiety, and PTSD How to meditate with a complete beginner's guide to meditation and mindfulness 7 science-backed physical and mental health benefits of yoga
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