How to breathe to reduce anxiety: how coherent breathing can reduce stress

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Coherent breathing is proven to reduce anxiety – but how can you practice at home? 

Anxiety manifests uniquely in all of us. I can tell when I’m overcome with worry or stress by the state of my hands: bitten nails and picked, bloody fingers. For others, it’s changes in their appetite or sleeping pattern. But one thing we all experience as panic or anxiety begins to flood over us is changes in our breathing.

While this shortness of breath can be terrifying, it also means that by learning how to control it we can de-stress.

The reason for that? “When you are breathing, you are rooted in the right here and now, you can’t be anywhere else. It takes us to the present moment and out of rumination and storytelling,” explains Nahid de Belgeonne, yoga instructor and founder of The Human Method. That means your mind can’t wander, questioning what your boss thought of your latest project, or replay the awkward moment of silence on your company Zoom call when you tried to make a joke, or think about, I don’t know, the global pandemics we are facing right now. 

Woman practicing breath work

“The breath acts as a remote control to the brain. When it’s slow, the brain is calm and the nervous system is soothed. But breathing properly also relaxes the physical body,” explains Nahid. This is important: think about how high your shoulders get, how tight your jaw gets, how clenched your fists are, when you’re stressed: letting go of all of that will allow you to breathe properly, too. 

“You can’t be physically relaxed and anxious at the same time,” Nahid says, which is why she always recommends you start a breathing practice by “finding a sense of your physical body”. 

“For instance, lie down and notice the bones of you descending into the ground. Notice what parts of your body you’re breathing into, notice the breath travelling into the nostrils, travelling over the soft palate into the windpipe and into the lungs,” she says. “This gives a rounder, fuller somatic experience.”

Once you’ve worked out how your body is feeling, move on to what is called coherent breathing. “This is where you breathe in and out through the nostrils, because that’s a much more efficient way to breathe and get air into the lungs, as opposed to the stomach.

“Breathe in for a slow count of six and out for a slow count of six. It’s a continuous breath, so don’t hold it,” explains Nahid. “Practice that for a few minutes a day and build up until you’re able to practice for 20 minutes.” 

This type of breathing isn’t only about calming you now: it’s proven in studies to have long lasting physiological effects. A 2019 study by Boston University found that practicing up to 123 hours of coherent breathing a month improved symptoms of depression and anxiety in 30 people diagnosed with clinical depression.

So, even if you’re not feeling anxious right now, there’s nothing to say that breathwork won’t help you ward it off in future.

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