How can something as easy as breathing exercises for anxiety and depression be helpful? Almost sounds too good to be true, right?

Well, first, keep in mind the utterly amazing fact that your body automatically knows how to inhale and exhale. Even when you are asleep.  Breathing is one of many cool things your body automatically does to keep you alive.

You don’t need to think about it. Breathe in. Breathe out. Voila. Breath just naturally happens.

But, breathing in a helpful way when you are anxious or depressed feels neither easy nor automatic.

In fact, you may inadvertently worsen the anxiety or depression symptoms depending on how you are breathing.

Modern day scientists discovered and fine tuned what Eastern masters knew long ago: Breathing affects health.

That is, breathing well goes hand in hand with feeling well. And with even feeling better than just ‘well’. 

So, it is safe to say that breathing exercises for anxiety and depression have been used effectively for thousands of years. As such, they have stood the test of time.

Further, a ‘fun fact’ about breath is that it is under both voluntary and involuntary control. In other words, breath is automatic, yet you can also intervene to intentionally change your breath in order to change your mood and physiology.

Thank you, autonomic nervous system!

Over the last decade or so, breathing exercises for anxiety and depression have become more widespread. And the techniques go far beyond the classic “just breath into a paper bag”. (Which is controversial at best.)

Breathing exercises designed for anxiety and depression actually work. And can be done anywhere, anytime, without any tools or pills. 

If you have ever had anxiety or depression, you know how awful every moment of existence can feel. Often, the two conditions occur at the same time. Talk about a double whammy.

The most highly recommended breathing exercises for anxiety and depression share some overlap. But, they are also different in many ways.

Breathing exercises to decrease anxiety and depression work because of how they affect heart rate and the mind. And whatever affects the mind affects the body. And vice versa.

Let’s break this down a bit. 

First up: Anxiety

Most everyone will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. The intensity varies from mild to moderate to severe. 

When you feel anxious, you experience changes in your body. For example, you may panic, hyperventilate, and/or breathe shallowly and quickly. Or your mind may start to race, and you suddenly feel woozy, nauseous, or as if you are going crazy. 

Anxiety is generally associated with breathing more shallowly and more quickly. This happens even if you are trying to do the exact opposite.  Hyperventilation can result, so less oxygenated blood flows to your brain. 

The most straightforward technique is simply to lengthen your exhale. 

Let’s call this technique the Exhalation Emphasis breath. 

Here is how to do the Exhalation Emphasis breath, either standing, sitting, or laying down:

  1. Before taking a breath in,  breath out. Push as much air out of your lungs as possible through that one exahalion. 
  2. Let your lungs naturally take in breath to fill the lungs. Do not force it. 
  3. On your next inhales/exhales, spend more time on breathing out than on breathing in. Some people count to do this. They may breathe in to the count of 3 and out to the count of 5. 
  4. Continue with the inhalation and the longer exhalation for at least a minute or so.

My favorite breathing technique to help with anxiety is called Alternate Nostril Breathing. 

The Sanskrit term is Nadi Shodhana. 

Practicing this breath will help you calm your nervous system. Just one minute of alternate nostril breathing can decrease stress and clear your mind! 

You can also try this technique when you’re feeling especially stressed or on edge.

The instructions sound complicated, but the practice is actually straight-forward. 

To do this, you will be breathing in and out through your nose only.

  1. Sit in a comfy position, perhaps with legs crossed.
  2. Place your left hand on your left knee.
  3. Bring your right hand to the area between your eyebrows.Place your index finger there.
  4. Exhale fully. 
  5. With your right thumb, close your right nostril.
  6. Inhale through the left nostril
  7. Close the left nostril with your ring finger.
  8. Open the right nostril and exhale through it.
  9. Inhale through the right nostril
  10. Close the right nostril and exhale left.
  11. Inhale through the left nostril.
  12. Close left nostril with your ring finger.
  13. Open the right nostril and exhale.
  14. Repeat for 1 or more minutes. 
  15. Finishing with an exhale on the left is recommended. 
Feeling anxious is not fun. Knowing that you can regulate  your breath in deliberate ways to help you manage anxiety is empowering. 

Depression

Depression is another psychological state that involves a lot of suffering. Breathing in particular ways can help to diminish depression. Skeptics are especially welcome to give it a try!

Cardiovascular exercise helps improve depression. Exercise creates hormonal changes associated with feeling better. However, when depressed, exercise is a big ask. It is probably one of the last things most depressed people want to do or feel capable of doing. 
Researchers have discovered that deep breathing that happens in cardiovascular exercise can be simulated through deliberate deep breathing.  

This is not your yoga teacher’s breathing. It is not chill, Zen, or about ohming. Nor is it the same as the types of breathing recommended to manage anxiety. 

Deep Breathing

Breathe in super deeply, as if you were about to go underwater. Start with your belly. Expand your lungs.  Imagine you have gills, and you are widening at your ribcage. Exhale. By doing this 20 times, you will derive similar benefits as with cardiovascular exercise. 

Equal Breathing

Research has also demonstrated that breathing in equal duration helps to alleviate depression symptoms.

Simply inhale through your nose for a count of 4 and exhale through your nose for a count of 4.

Breathing is not a panacea for anxiety or depression. However, the way you breath can  contribute to these conditions, and the use of breathing exercises for anxiety and depression can help you to feel better.

As with most things, the more you practice, the more natural what you are practicing feels. Over time, with practice, you may notice that breathing exercises for anxiety and depression occur naturally, often to the point they do not require deliberate effort. 

And that certainly can bring you a sigh of relief! (Long exhale please.)

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist in private practice specializing in the interfacing of mind-body techniques to improve psychological well being.

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