Breathing techniques are often used to help people deal with stress or avoid a panic attack. They can be important because people who have anxiety attacks tend to take rapid, shallow breaths from the chest. This pattern may disrupt the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels that are typically kept in balance as people breathe.
During a panic attack, rapid breaths can lead to a faster heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, and other symptoms. These symptoms may, in turn, contribute to even more anxiety. This thoracic (chest) breathing differs from the deep, even breaths seen in diaphragmatic breathing, an abdominal pattern that happens when people are relaxed or sleeping.
This article describes how conscious changes in your breathing pattern can help you control stress and anxiety. It explains various breathing techniques and how to assess your own breathing style.
Verywell / Laura Porter
Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack
The symptoms of an anxiety attack differ from one person to the next. Some common symptoms include:
- Feeling tense, nervous, or fearful
- Hyperventilation, or rapid breathing
- Restlessness or irritability
- Sweating and/or trembling
- Worrying about the past or future
Breathing exercises can offer anxiety relief as you learn to manage and reduce these symptoms.
There's a simple way to learn your own breathing pattern. Place one hand on your upper abdomen near the waist and put the other in the middle of your chest. If you're breathing properly, the hand on your abdomen should rise and fall with each breath. This is diaphragmatic breathing. If the chest rises, it's thoracic breathing.1
You may be familiar with breathwork from taking a yoga or fitness class. But even if you're not, you should catch on fast. There are many breathing exercises you can learn on your own or with the guidance of a healthcare provider or wellness practitioner.
Begin your breathwork journey with recommendations from The American Institute of Stress (AIS). They combine deep breathing and visualization. Practice them and find which ones work best for you.2
1. Deep Breathing
Before you jump (or crawl) out of bed to start your day, try a morning breathing exercise. It helps to relieve any muscle stiffness and can get your day off to a good, calm start. Repeat it during the day if you feel a bout of anxiety creeping up on you:3
- Stand up and bend forward from the waist with your knees slightly bent. Let your arms dangle at your sides.
- Inhale slowly and deeply as you return to a standing position, lifting your head last.
- Hold your breath for a few seconds.
- Exhale slowly as you return to the original position, bending forward from the waist.
2. Teddy Bear Breathing
This technique can be used for children. But teens and adults can do this exercise, too:
- Lie on your back, place a hand on your chest, and place a teddy bear on your belly button.
- Close your eyes and relax your entire body.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose. The teddy bear should rise, but your chest should not.
- When you have taken a full, deep breath, hold it, count to three, and then slowly breathe out.
- Repeat until you feel relaxed.
Breathing Is Believing
What's the difference between "zoning out" on the sofa and doing breathing exercises? A lot, says the American Institute of Stress. Breathing exercises activate the body's "relaxation response." Relaxation reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.2
This breathing technique is meant to make it easier to fall asleep. It was designed by Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Also called the relaxing breath, the 4-7-8 exercise serves as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.
To try the 4-7-8 method, begin by sitting with your back straight. Once you are familiar with these steps, the exercise can be performed while lying in bed, too. You'll want to:
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth. You'll keep it there for the entire exercise.
- Completely exhale through your mouth, making a "whoosh" sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose as you mentally count to four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making another "whoosh" sound to a count of eight.4
Breathing techniques are a helpful tool for people who have anxiety or panic attacks. They can help relieve rapid breathing rates and other symptoms of anxiety. The one thing they have in common is underscoring how breath control is key to feeling calm.
4. Mindful Breathing
Another breathing exercise to improve sleep and fight off insomnia is called mindful breathing. Breathing control is a big part of mindfulness. This is according to Dr. Herbert Benson, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston. He recommends:
- Choose a calming focus. Good examples are your breath, a sound like “om,” or a short prayer. You may want to use a positive focus word such as “peace” or a short phrase. If you choose a sound, repeat it aloud or silently as you breathe in and out.
- Let go and relax. When you notice your mind wander, just take a deep breath or say to yourself “thinking, thinking.” This prompt should gently return your attention to your chosen focus.5
One study of people who had trouble sleeping divided 49 middle-aged and older adults into two groups. Half completed a program that taught mindfulness exercises meant to help them focus on the moment. The other half were in a sleep education class that taught them ways to improve their sleep habits.
When compared with people in the sleep habits group, those in the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression at the end of six sessions.6
Mindful breathing is a form of mindfulness. This is the practice of literally living in the moment—being aware of what's going on in the present rather than dwelling on the past or future. Noticing how you breathe is part of being mindful.
5. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic, or abdominal, breathing is meant to help you use your diaphragm while breathing. It is a muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. This allows you to use less effort and energy to breathe. It helps to slow your breathing rate and reduce the body's demand for oxygen.
The next time you need anxiety relief, try this simple breathing technique. It can be done standing, sitting, or lying down:
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand and your chest should rise very little.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, slightly purse your lips but keep your jaw relaxed. You may make a soft “whoosh” sound as you exhale.
- Repeat this breathing exercise. Do it for several minutes until you start to feel better.7
Breathing exercises may seem simple, but they require practice. The American Lung Association recommends doing them for about 10 minutes a day while you're calm and comfortable.8
6. Slow Breathing
Quick, shallow, and unfocused breathing can contribute to a host of problems, including anxiety. It may bring both mental and physical health benefits if you develop better control over your lungs.
A 2018 review of research on this topic found that slow, deep breathing can help ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It also appears to help relieve insomnia.9
Slow Breathing Defined
Experts define slow breathing as any rate from four to 10 breaths per minute. The typical respiratory rate in humans is within a range of 10 to 20 breaths per minute.10
7. Pursed-Lip Breathing
Pursed-lips breathing is meant to make your breathing more effective. This breathing technique will help make your breaths slower and more intentional. After inhaling, pucker your lips and exhale through them slowly and deliberately, often while counting.
Pursed-lips breathing has been shown to help people with anxiety associated with lung diseases. These conditions include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. Pursed-lips breathing can be done up to five times a day.11 Here's how it's done:
- Relax your neck and shoulders.
- Inhale slowly through the nostrils for two seconds but keep your mouth closed.
- Exhale through the mouth for four seconds. Keep in mind that the extended time is key. When exhaling, pucker your mouth as if giving a kiss.
- While breathing out, keep a slow and steady breath. Don’t breathe out hard.
8. Resonance Breathing
Resonance breathing, also called coherent breathing, can help you avoid an anxiety attack by putting you in a calm, relaxed state.
A study of 15 people sought to assess the effects of yoga and coherent breathing, at five breaths per minute, on symptoms of depression. It also sought to find the right yoga schedule for later research into how yoga might help people with major depressive disorder (MDD). During a 12-week program, the symptoms declined significantly in MDD patients.12
To do resonance breathing, follow these steps:
- Lie down and close your eyes.
- Gently breathe in through your nose, mouth closed, for a count of six seconds. Don’t fill your lungs too full of air.
- Exhale for six seconds, allowing your breath to leave your body slowly and gently. Don’t force it.
- Continue for up to 10 minutes.
- Take a few additional minutes to be still and focus on how your body feels.
9. Yoga Breathing
By controlling the breath through a practice called pranayama, the ancient yogis found they could alter their state of mind. The practice makes breathing slow and regular while tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls the cardiac muscles and glands) and its ability to calm and soothe.
In stressful times, people typically breathe too fast. This can lead to changes in carbon dioxide levels, which in turn upsets the chemistry of acid-alkaline balance in the blood. This may lead to symptoms that include:
- Muscle twitching
Breathing Sends a Message
When you breathe deeply, you do more than inhale and exhale air. You send a message to your brain to relax. Your brain then directs the message to your body.3
Yogic breathing can help you to achieve balance in both the body and mind.13 Mind-body practices are increasingly used when treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They have been linked to positive effects on stress-induced illness.14 To experiment, follow these steps:
- Sit in a chair with your spine erect or lie on your back on the floor.
- Put your fingertips lightly on your lower belly, just above the pubic bone. Try to direct inhalations into this space, expanding the belly each time.
- Move your fingertips to the spaces below your collarbone. Place your pinkie tips on the sides of the sternum (breastbone) and spread the rest of your fingers out to the sides.
- For a few inhaled breaths, see if you can gently expand the spaces you're touching.
- Be careful to keep your throat as relaxed as possible as you do this. It will keep you from tensing it up as you inhale into the upper chest.
- As much as you can, breathe into your back body, feeling how it balloons and then deflates with each breath cycle.13
Many of the breathing techniques known to reduce anxiety come from, or are similar to, practices you may know from yoga. They are designed to help you keep a healthy balance in both body and mind. They emphasize being deliberate and mindful about your breathing so you can reduce stress and anxiety, and feel calm and in control.
10. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing (ANB) is another breathing technique that can be done as part of a yoga or meditation practice. You can do it to help you calm your mind.15
One study of 100 people looked at how ANB affects respiratory function in healthy, young adults who lead stressful lives. The researchers found it improved notably after using this technique:16
- Sit in a comfortable position with the spine long and the hips relaxed.
- Release any tension from your jaw and close your eyes.
- Place your left hand on your left knee with the palm up.
- With your right hand, place the tips of the index and middle fingers on your forehead in between the eyebrows. Put your ring and little fingers on the left nostril and the thumb on the right nostril.
- Use the ring and little fingers to open and close the left nostril. Use the thumb for the right nostril.
- On exhalation, close the right nostril with your thumb. Breathe out through the left nostril.
- Breathe in through both nostrils, close the right nostril, and breathe out through the left nostril.
- Breathe in through the left nostril and then close with the ring finger. Release the thumb on the right nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
- Inhale through the right nostril, close with the thumb, release the ring finger from the left side and exhale through the left nostril.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Keep in mind that some stress is normal when you're experiencing a major life change. But you may want to see a health professional for your anxiety symptoms or if you're having frequent panic attacks.
This is especially true if your anxiety interferes with daily life. It's also the case if your stress and anxiety are related to existing health issues or if you feel that they may be the cause of new ones.
Psychotherapy (known as "talk therapy") may help you better understand the cause of your stress and alleviate its symptoms. Depending on the cause of your anxiety, a healthcare provider may prescribe medication that can help, too.
There are plenty of reasons for why people have anxiety attacks and experience stress. Every person is unique and so are their symptoms.
That said, it's common for people to be unable to sleep, to have negative thoughts, and to have physical symptoms like hyperventilation. Breathing exercises can reduce these symptoms and anxiety.
Slow, deep, deliberate breaths have been shown to offer benefits for people who deal with anxiety as well as those who have other medical conditions that contribute to their unease.
A Word From Verywell
Some people have experienced years of stress or panic attacks. For others, anxiety and its alarming symptoms may be new. Breathing exercises like these can be an enormous help as you regain a sense of control over your life.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is a panic attack different from an anxiety attack?
It can be, when your anxiety begins to interfere with your health and well-being. All people experience anxiety in their lives, and for many reasons that might even be a good thing. When anxiety exceeds normal levels, though, it becomes an anxiety disorder and they're the most common mental disorders in the United States.17
It helps to take control of your life in ways that you can. That may mean healthy lifestyle changes, like getting enough rest. Exercise is a proven technique to reduce stress.18 You also can learn to be more mindful of the signs and symptoms of anxiety, or the people and situations that lead to your anxiety, and limit your exposure. Breathing techniques will help, but don't hesitate to seek out professional care if you need it.