Anxiety and the healing power of your breath

When anxiety strikes, it can feel like the walls are closing in. Your heart races, your chest tightens, and each inhale struggles to bring air. Anxiety literally takes your breath away. In these urgent moments, the simplest yet most vital act can lower anxiety: breathing deeply.


Why deep breathing calms

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing activates the body's relaxation response, signalling safety to your nervous system. As you inhale, the diaphragm muscle located below your lungs expands downwards, filling the lungs fully with oxygen. Slow, measured exhalation through pursed lips then allows muscles to release tension.

This process of abdominal breathing tells the body and brain to relax. Breathing exercises also draw focus to the present moment, interrupting the worrying thoughts and catastrophic scenarios that fuel anxiety. The more you can consciously control each inhale and exhale, the less anxiety controls you.

Building an effective breath practice

Starting a consistent daily breathing practice takes some discipline, but the payoff is immense. Begin by setting a timer for just two minutes each day. Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen press into your hand. Exhale steadily out through pursed lips, like you're blowing through a straw. Repeat for two minutes, focusing fully on each inhalation and exhalation.

Gradually increase the duration of your breathing practice session over time. Work up from two minutes to five, then ultimately 10 minutes daily. Try doing it first thing in the morning to set a calm tone for your day. Apps like Headspace and Calm offer soothing guided meditations that integrate deep diaphragmatic breathing if you need some extra guidance.

The goal is to make abdominal breathing second nature so you can slip into it automatically when stressed. With enough practice, your respiratory system will grow accustomed to deeper, more relaxed breathing patterns.

Lifestyle tips to optimise breathing

Certain lifestyle habits can also help reset our natural breathing rhythms so they're less shallow and frantic:

  • Prioritise high-quality sleep, which is when our breathing becomes its deepest and most restorative. Avoid digital screens before bed, limit caffeine, and create a tranquil environment.
  • Incorporate more mindfulness practices like mindful walking, where you focus fully on each inhale and exhale as you slowly move. Yoga is another great option, as sequences synchronise movement with breath work.
  • Reduce smoking and consider quitting, as this impairs lung function over time leading to shallower breathing.

Professional support for anxiety relief

For those with chronic anxiety, unhelpful breathing habits can become entrenched. Counsellors provide guidance in using breathwork, meditation, and other techniques to regain control. With practice, diaphragmatic breathing can be used anytime, allowing you to self-soothe when stressed. Carry these tools in your back pocket.

There is power in each breath, but greater still in learning to breathe through life's challenges with support. My therapy services provide a judgement-free space to better understand anxiety and build a personalised breathing toolkit. Together we can get your breathing – and your life – back on track.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wallington, Surrey, SM6
Written by Thomas Hatton
Wallington, Surrey, SM6

As a psychotherapist, Thomas seeks to empower individuals to overcome their personal challenges and achieve lasting growth. His ideal client is someone who is ready to do the deep inner work required for meaningful change. They may be struggling with anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, relationship issues, or simply feeling stuck and unfulfilled.

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