Easy breathing exercises to relieve anxiety and stress as lockdown lifts

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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A woman using breathwork to reduce anxiety

Anxious about returning to work, meeting up with friends or being around people as lockdown eases? These simple breathing exercises could help to ease some of the tension you’re feeling right now.

Whether you’re returning to the office for the first time since March, visiting the pub for your first post-lockdown pint or leaving the house after four months of shielding, getting back to the things we used to do before lockdown can be pretty overwhelming. 

After 100+ days spent adapting to a slower, more insular way of life, heading back out into the world can be a big shock to the system.

In summary, it’s likely many people will be feeling the strain on their mental health over the next couple of months. And as a result, being able to effectively manage our anxiety and stress levels with effective coping mechanisms is even more important than usual.

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“Getting back into the working world will no doubt bring a faster pace back into our lives. Couple this with a jam-packed social diary, and we are at risk of falling into a state of stress, anxiety and overwhelm,” explains Stuart Sandeman, the UK’s leading breath expert and founder of Breathpod.

“Our breathing is the most remarkable tool we can use that’s free, accessible and legal. By consciously controlling our breath and changing the rhythm, rate and depth, we can change how we feel in any given moment. We can hack our system to create a sense of calm, improve productivity, increase focus, improve sleep, alleviate stress and anxiety, alleviate unwanted emotions… the list is endless.”

With this in mind, we asked Sandeman for his top tips when it comes to using breathing to reduce our anxiety, as well as his go-to techniques for dealing with anxiety-inducing situations in our post-lockdown world. 

How does breathing work to reduce anxiety?

You might have heard that breathing has the power to boost our energy levels, reduce anxiety and even improve our body’s ability to handle intense exercise – but how does it work? And why is it so effective for anxiety in particular?

“To create and maintain a sense of calm as we re-enter the working world, it is important we activate our Para- Sympathetic side of our autonomic system,” Sandeman explains. “The Para-sympathetic state is our rest response. Our brain and body conserve energy in this state as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. 

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“The Sympathetic state is our stress response (for example if we were being chased by a tiger). Our brain and body kick into gear to increase muscle blood flow and tension, dilates pupils, accelerates heart rate and respiration, increases perspiration and arterial blood pressure. All in order to keep you safe from danger. The issue today is that there aren’t many tigers around, yet we find ourselves in this anxious state daily due to the everyday stresses and strains of the modern world we live in, whether it’s emails, meetings, commuting.

He continues: “We can use the breath to activate this para-sympathetic response very quickly and efficiently. In order to stay calm and reduce anxiety as we re-enter life after lockdown, we want to balance the two systems in different ways.”

5 expert breathing tips to help with return anxiety and lower stress as lockdown eases

1. Introduce 20 mins of breathwork at the beginning of the day

A woman breathing deeply
Return anxiety: 20 minutes of breathwork in the morning can help you to feel more calm about the day ahead.

“‘Reset’ first thing every morning with deep, diaphragmatic breathing for three to five minutes,” Sandeman says. “Also try shaking the body out a bit – when we move the body in that way, it calms the nervous system. It’s a great way to set yourself up for the day ahead so you are ready for action.”

Unsure about where to start? Sandeman is hosting 20-minute IG lives every morning on the Breathpod Instagram to guide your morning breathwork sessions and kick off the day.

2. How to handle anxiety in crowds or when commuting: use the ‘If In Doubt, Breathe it Out’ technique

“Crowds and commuting can be scary, particularly as we re-enter the normal world after the safety net of lockdown,” Sandeman says.

“This technique helps to restore balance, ease the mind and body and bring us energetically back into alignment. It reduces heart rate, causes your body to relax and your mind to slow. It’s a great way to hit the reset button for your mental state if you are anxious about getting back on public transport. This technique is an easy one to do fairly quietly so there is no need to feel self-conscious if you want to do a few rounds on the bus, on the tube or in an uber.”

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How to practise the ‘If in Doubt, Breath it Out’ technique:

  1. Inhale through nose for a count of five
  2. Exhale through the mouth for a count of 10
  3. Repeat five rounds

3. How to calm anxiety at work and remain focused: use the ‘Box Breathing’ technique

An office space
Return anxiety: worried about settling in to the office after lockdown? The 'Box Breathing' technique could be the answer.

“Getting back into the busy working day will no doubt be a shock for many,” Sandeman explains. 

“Re-adapting to a work setting, where there will inevitably be more noise, demands and distractions, can cause anxiety. Depending on how severe the anxiety is we may wish to just balance out the system, as we don’t want to move fully into rest and digest mode. We want to balance both autonomic responses so that we are calm, but alert. This can be achieved by box breathing.”

How to practise the ‘Box Breathing’ technique: 

  1. Inhale through the nose for a count of four
  2. Hold breath for a count of four
  3. Exhale through the nose for a count of four
  4. Hold breath for a count of four
  5. Repeat four rounds

4. How to manage anticipatory anxiety ahead of social gatherings or meetings: use the ‘Coherent Breathing’ technique

“We’ve had a lot of time to ourselves over the past couple of months, so as we’re getting back into the swing of socialising, whether it’s keeping up with our jam-packed social diary or staying on top of work meetings, it’s easy to feel social anxiety, stress or overwhelm,” Sandeman points out. “It’s important to pace ourselves.

“Before social gatherings or meetings, we want to be in a good natural flow so that we can engage and flourish. The best technique is Coherent Breathing. This is a great tool for balancing the body and mind and it’s easy to do anywhere, anytime.”

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How to practise the ‘Coherent Breathing’ technique:

  1. Inhale through the nose for a count of four
  2. Exhale through the nose for a count of six
  3. Repeat four times

5. How to de-stress and lower blood pressure: use the ‘Double Calm Breath’ technique

A woman looking out her window
Return anxiety: if your stress levels get out of control, the 'Double Calm Breath' technique could help you to ground yourself.

“High blood pressure is caused by an overactive sympathetic response. In this state, the primary signal within the body is to keep you alive,” Sandeman explains. “This state increases heart rate and blood pressure, increasing the rate of blood flow to the brain and muscles.

“To combat the increase in blood pressure, exhaling longer than you inhale activates the parasympathetic response by stimulating the Vagus nerve, which slows our heart rate down, lowers our blood pressure and moves our blood flow to our digestive system and skin etc. (the rest and digest state).”

Sandeman continues: “A simple exercise to lower blood pressure and move to a parasympathetic state is to do the Breathpod ‘Double Calm’ Breath, which we do by simply doubling the length the exhale to the inhale length.”

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How to practise the ‘Double Calm Breath’ technique:

  1. Inhale for a count of four through the nose
  2. Exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight
  3. Inhale for count of five through the nose
  4. Exhale through pursed lips for a count of 10
  5. Inhale for a count of six through the nose
  6. Exhale for a count of 12

If the increase in lengths is too much, just repeat the inhale for four and exhale for eight stage.

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here’s three articles that might help.

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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