If something scary in the news or a stressful deadline at work has your anxiety spiraling out of control, fear not! You can try breathing exercises to slow your heart rate and bring you a sense of calm.
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Understanding Stress and Anxiety
Your body's instant, powerful response to an apparent scare, threat or challenge is called acute stress, or the "fight-or-flight" response, Mayo Clinic says.
"Many people live chronically in this state of 'fight/flight/freeze,' or hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system," says Trisha Brabender, MPST, a physical therapist, yoga teacher and owner of Inspired Wellness in Lawrence, Kansas.
"This results in increased stress hormone production, which then strains the adrenal glands and can lead to disruptions of other hormones, digestion, sleep and more," she says. "When an additional crisis or trauma occurs, there can be little reserve left, causing a person to feel scattered, anxious, depressed or stuck."
Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to help decrease any stress you're feeling, says Michigan Medicine, noting that breathing deeply not only helps your brain relax but also aids in lowering your heart rate and blood pressure. "Except in some cases of acute illness, heart disease, or lung disease, mostly everyone can benefit from using breathing exercises to reduce an abnormal heart rate," Brabender adds.
Breathing Exercises to Try
If you feel your body's fight-or-flight response creeping up on you, consider trying one of these three types of breathing exercises:
1. Diaphragmatic breathing. "I have found that true diaphragmatic breathing — syncing up the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles with the breath cycle — can be extremely centering and relaxing," Brabender says. In about five minutes, the body's "rest and digest response" increases and the fight-or-flight response slows down, she says.
To successfully practice diaphragmatic breathing, the Cleveland Clinic recommends that you:
- Sit upright in a chair with your knees bent and relax your head, neck and shoulders.
- Place one hand right below your ribs and the other hand on your upper chest.
- Take a slow breath in through your nose, allowing your stomach to move out against your hand.
the muscles in your stomach and allow them to fall inward as you breathe out
through pursed lips.
2. Box breathing. "This exercise is helpful because you can do it without anyone noticing — for instance, in line at the grocery store or during a work meeting," says Jennifer Douglas, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, California.
To practice box breathing, Douglas advises that you:
- Trace an invisible box in front of you with your finger or just your eyes. As you draw the right side of the box from top to bottom, exhale to a count of four.
- Next, as you draw the bottom of the box from right to left, hold your exhaled breath on a count of four. Then, inhale to a count of four as you draw the left side of the box from bottom to top.
hold your inhaled breath as you draw the top line of the box from left to right
on a count of four.
3. Cleansing breath. To practice cleansing breath properly, Melanie Webb, a personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), based in Salt Lake City, Utah, recommends that you:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms relaxed and hands facing each other.
- As you inhale, sweep your arms up the front of your body and reach them outward, as if gathering nervous energy.
- As you exhale, release your arms and then take twice as long to exhale as you did to inhale.
Beyond Breathing Exercises
Although an occasional bout of acute stress is not typically harmful if you're healthy, severe acute stress can lead to mental health issues later on, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the Mayo Clinic explains. Severe acute stress can also lead to physical problems, including stomach issues, tension headaches or even a heart attack, the Mayo Clinic adds.
If you're unsure whether what you're feeling is normal, consider discussing your concerns with a professional, says Brabender.
"I would recommend anyone with an abnormal heart rate to see their doctor, because what they feel is 'anxiety' may in fact be a symptom of cardiac issues or other health issues," she adds.
- Cleveland Clinic: “Diaphragmatic Breathing”
- Jennifer Douglas, PhD, psychologist, clinical assistant professor, Stanford University, California
- Mayo Clinic: “Stress Management”
- Melanie Webb, ACE-certified personal trainer, author, founder of Sol Fitness Adventures and WebbWell, Salt Lake City, Utah
- Michigan Medicine: “Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation”
- Trisha Brabender, MSPT, physical therapist, yoga teacher, owner, Inspired Wellness LLC, Lawrence, Kansas