Breathing Exercises for Anxiety


Benefits  Lengthen Exhale | Abdominal Breathing | Guided Breathing Resonance Breathing | Q&A

Medically reviewed by Dr Sonia Madrid Cuevas Msc PhD.  Written by: Ben Gillett MSc.  Updated: 7 October 2021

Everybody feels anxious sometimes.  Whatever the cause, we can use our breathing to influence our minds. A growing body of research shows that breathing exercises are effective against anxiety. [1]
Our breathing changes its pattern and rhythm at different times of the day based not only on what our bodies are doing physically, but also on how we are feeling.  For example, we pant with exhaustion or hold our breath when we are scared.  
Breathing is an unusual bodily process in that it can be either voluntary or involuntary.  We can breathe without thinking about it, or we can consciously control it.  Because of this special relationship between our mind and body, our breathing pattern can play an important role in how we are affected by stress and anxiety.  
In times of stress breathing rate and heart rate increase and our body produces a hormone called cortisol. The opposite is also true. When the body is calm and relaxed breathing is slow-paced and the heart rate slows down.  It’s possible to train the body to switch to a relaxed state by controlling the breath and slowing it down.  Breathing exercises also influence the mind by diverting attention from troubling thoughts. 


Benefits of Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

Breathing exercises can:

  • Decrease our level of stress and anxiety

  • Help us to develop a greater sense of connection between our body and mind

  • Improve our ability to respond to anxious events

  • Increase blood oxygen levels

  • Reduce blood pressure 


What Is the Fight or Flight Response?

The flight or fight response is a reaction of our bodies to something that is terrifying.  The term represents the choices our ancestors had when faced with a dangerous animal or situation.  In response to this stress, our body releases hormones which lead to our heart rate and breathing rate speeding up.  This in turn can put our mind into fight or flight mode.  When faced with a dangerous animal this can be a helpful response but in other situations which we more typically experience in modern life such as preparing for an important meeting this response can be less helpful.  

When our brain is in fight or flight mode, we tend to lose the ability to reason and make the best decisions. This sense of panic from stress and anxiety can make us act impulsively or irrationally and cause us to ruminate on those stressful thoughts. 


Lengthen Your Exhale

Breathing too quickly or unevenly can cause unpleasant symptoms such as feeling dizzy or faint and can frequently become a cause of anxiety.  Taking a deep breath in raises your heart rate slightly and activates the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response. Exhaling slows your heart rate slightly and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which influences your body's ability to relax and calm down.  

Before taking a big inhale, start with a long exhale, allowing your lungs to empty.  When breathing for relaxation, increasing the length of the exhale helps to lower the heart rate and thus helps to quiet the brain.  


Chest vs Abdominal Breathing

Chest breathing occurs when there is upward and outward movement of our chest and most frequently occurs when we are doing vigorous exercise or in an emergency situation.  If we do shallow chest breathing, when only the chest moves for long periods of time it can cause our body to tense as if it’s under stress.  When the upper chest muscles are strongly activated for breathing, this can cause increased feelings of anxiety.  

Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is the most relaxed and efficient way of breathing, and occurs when your stomach moves outward when breathing in, and inwards when breathing out.   Doing diaphragmatic breathing can help to reduce feelings of anxiety.  The diaphragmatic breathing technique focuses on pulling a deep breath into your lungs, allowing your stomach to rise and exhaling slowly to relax the body.  


How to do Abdominal Breathing

  1. Place one hand just below your rib cage.

  2. Inhale: slowly breathe in through your nose so that your stomach expands out against your hand. Let your breath flow as deeply into your stomach as is comfortable without forcing it.   

  3. Exhale: slowly breathe out through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles and letting your stomach fall.  

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises GIF

7/11 Paced Breathing

One way to maintain a nice slow even breathing pattern is to use counting to regulate your breathing.   Here’s how to do 7/11 breathing:

  • Breathe in for a count of 7

  • Then breathe out for a count of 11. 

  • Continue for 5 minutes if possible and it will help to calm you down.  This can be combined with diaphragmatic breathing. 


Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing is simply the act of focusing your attention on your breath - the inhale and the exhale.  Here’s how to do it:

  • Become aware of your breath.  Notice where you feel your breath in your body - it might be in your chest, your stomach or your nose.  

  • Notice how one breath turns into another - as one breath ends, another begins.

  • As you do this, your mind may start to wonder.  That’s OK - this happens for everyone.  Just gently redirect your attention back to your breath.  

  • Continue this process for at least five minutes.

It is possible to use mindful breathing to stay in better control when experiencing anxiety or chronic stress. Mindfulness helps you to become aware of what you are experiencing - for example tension in your stomach and shallow breathing.  This then gives you an opportunity to take a step back, do some deep breathing and regain a greater sense of calm.  


Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing is a particular kind of paced breathing in which you breathe slowly at around six breaths per minute.  There is good evidence that breathing at this optimal rate for heart rate variability brings many benefits in terms of mind and body. [2]  There is also good evidence that the a rate of 5.5 breaths per minute is the optimal breathing rate for most people. [3]

You can practice this breathing technique using a watch, breathing in and out every ten seconds.  However, there is an easier and more enjoyable way - using music to guide your inhale and exhale.


Music Guided Breathing

Harmonic Breathing comprises of music which guides you to breathe at six breaths per minute - the optimal rate for relaxation, by simply inhaling with the rising notes and exhaling with the falling notes.  This is one of the easiest ways to practice breathing exercises for anxiety. With Harmonic Breathing you can combine resonance breathing, diaphragmatic breathing and mindful breathing all at the same time to maximise your relaxation.  

Find out more about Harmonic Breathing.


What is the Role of Cortisol in the Body When it Experiences Anxiety?

The fight or flight mode triggered by the sympathetic nervous system creates several reactions in the body, one of these reactions is to produce cortisol. Once cortisol has been produced this chemical tells the body that there has been a threat and the body puts itself into the best position to deal with that threat. 

In the short term cortisol is helpful for the body, but under chronic stress, when the stressor does not go away and the body continues to produce cortisol the effect becomes unhealthy.

Prolonged, high levels of cortisol can alter our perception and emotion. We can perceive small threats as huge threats and we can also have issues expressing our emotions.  Further, an overactive sympathetic nervous system can lead to general anxiety.


What is Heart Rate Variability and How Does it Relate to Anxiety?

Heart rate variability has become a popular way to measure the health of the nervous system and its ability to adapt to stress. The metric measures the variation in time between each heartbeat. It can give an indication as to whether the body is in fight or flight mode or whether it is in rest and digest mode.

In recent years studies have shown there is a link between low heart rate variability (HRV) and anxiety and depression. The body’s HRV will fluctuate throughout the day, however, overall people who average a high HRV will report feeling calmer and more relaxed. 

Using the techniques described in this article it’s possible to train the body to switch to the rest and digest mode by controlling the breath and slowing it down.  

As the body moves over to rest and digest mode HRV will also improve, which ensures that the body is more resilient to stressors and less likely to switch so easily into the fight or flight response in the future. 


How Often Should You Do Breathing Exercises for Anxiety?

Ideally breathing exercises should be carried out daily. How you get to this point depends largely on how you create habits. Some people prefer to introduce something new and then gradually increase the activity over time and some people go all in straight away.  How do you form a habit? Identify what has worked for you in the past and use these methods to add daily breathing practice to your routine. 

Breathing exercises can also be used to calm the nervous system at the moment a fight or flight response has been triggered. So, if you are able to use the breathing exercises several times a day when you need to calm down then this is also a good way to practice.


Are there Cases When I Should Not Use Breathing Exercises?

If you are at all concerned about practicing breathing exercises to help with your anxiety then please contact your doctor for advice. There are also some groups we would recommend contacting their doctor first to make sure these techniques are suitable: those suffering from prolonged, severe anxiety and panic disorders, pregnant women, acute asthma sufferers, children and those recovering from surgery.  If you try these practices and find that you are having breathing issues whilst practicing then stop and consult your doctor for advice.


What Apart from Breathing Exercises Can Help with Anxiety?

  • Exercise - go for a walk, do yoga or whatever exercise you enjoy

  • Write down your thoughts - getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper can help you reduce their power

  • Challenge your thoughts - are they true?  What purpose does your anxiety serve?  Are you over estimating the danger, and underestimating your resources to cope?

  • Identify what triggers your anxiety and find ways to manage your stress

  • Have a healthy diet and low alcohol intake 

  • Try supplements such as valerian or ashwagandha

  • Improve your sleep - how breathing exercises can improve your sleep

  • Ask your doctor about medications 


How Do I Get Started With Breathing Exercises for Anxiety?

The easiest way to get started is to watch the introduction video featured on the Harmonic Breathing Homepage.  Try Harmonic Breathing in which you can combine diaphragmatic breathing, resonance breathing and mindful breathing with music, binaural beats and nature sounds all at once.  Try it - it’s completely free and easy to do.

Learn to Relax with Harmonic Breathing



1.  How breath-control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Andrea Zaccaro, Andrea Piarulli, Marco Laurino, Erika Garbella, Danilo Menicucci, Bruno Neri, Angelo Gemignani (2018)

2.  The impact of resonance frequency breathing on measures of heart rate variability, blood pressure, and mood

Patrick R. Steffen, Tara Austin, Andrea DeBarros, Tracy Brown (2017)

3.  Heart rate variability biofeedback as a method for assessing baroreflex function: a preliminary study of resonance in the cardiovascular system. Evgeny Vaschillo, Paul Lehrer, Naphtali Rishe, Mikhail Konstantinov (2002)

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