3 breathing techniques to reduce anxiety

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When we’re stressed or anxious, people often say, “take a deep breath” to help us calm down. Why does this work, and can we do it on our own to reduce anxiety?

WellTuned spoke with Aubrey Schmissrauter, an exercise specialist on the Employee Wellbeing Team with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to find out.

Stress is a very real part of our lives, and we often hold it in our bodies,” Aubrey explains. “Focusing your body and mind on breathing helps calms your nervous system. This will help slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.”

How stress affects our health

Aubrey Schmissrauter: Many of us don’t realize that we’re taking small, shallow breaths when we’re stressed or anxious. It’s part of our “fight or flight” response that is trying to protect us from threatening situations. Unfortunately, when we are anxious or chronically stressed, the body can overreact to non-life threatening situations, which can affect both physical and mental health.

It can put you at higher risk for a variety of health problems, including:

  • Digestive issues
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep issues
  • Obesity

3 breathing techniques to try

Aubrey Schmissrauter: Breathing exercises try to slow our stress-induced short breaths to a breathing that is a “full oxygen exchange.” Taking deep breaths from the diaphragm, rather than shallow breaths from the chest, sends a message to your brain to relax.

Give these breathing techniques a try. You may find that you prefer one over the others, or you might alternate them at various times.

4-7-8 breathing

  • Inhale while silently counting to 4
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds
  • Smoothly exhale for 8 seconds
  • Repeat until you feel calmer

Belly breathing

  • Sit or lie down and close your eyes
  • Place your hands on your belly
  • Slowly inhale and feel your belly inflate with air
  • Exhale slowly and feel your belly deflate
  • Repeat

Alternate nostril breathing

  • Place your right thumb against your nose to ‘close’ your right nostril
  • Slowly inhale through your left nostril
  • Hold your breath for a second
  • Use your right finger to ‘close’ your left nostril
  • Exhale through the right nostril
  • Wait one second.
  • Inhale through your right nostril while your left nostril remains closed
  • Pause for a second
  • Close your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril
  • Repeat the entire cycle

Breathing techniques take time, practice

Aubrey Schmissrauter: Check in with yourself throughout your day to see how you’re feeling. If you realize that you’re feeling stressed or tense, take a breather break.

“Often, the benefits of taking ‘breather breaks’ will kick in right away,” says Aubrey. “However, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t feel immediate results. A couple of times each day, try to connect to your body and mind through your breath. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.”

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Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.