Over the last number of years, the subjects of anxiety and depression have been getting some much-needed attention as a serious and pervasive health issue.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization(WHO), over 300 million people struggle with some form of anxiety or depression globally. While still carrying somewhat of a stigma in certain cultures, people around the world are increasingly more comfortable with discussing the subject which is the first step to open acceptance and healing.
While feeling sadness or having mood swings can often be part of normal life, people living with anxiety and depression often experience a far more intense depth of emotion which can be extremely disruptive and debilitating. In times of stress, breathing exercises are often simple and effective solutions you can use on the spot to relax your breath and return to a feeling calm within seconds.
Why do breathing exercises for anxiety and depression work?
Take a deep breath. Doesn’t it just feel better? At that moment, you’re focused only on that breath. Your mind isn’t occupied with other concerns or getting lost in the thousands of thoughts running through your brain. Instead, it’s tuned in only to that breath… on the slow, deep inhale and calm, relaxing exhale.
Here are 5 breathing tips that can help diffuse anxiety and reduce depression:
Progressive relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation
You can do this almost anywhere as long as you are sitting comfortably. To dispel tension from your muscles, close your eyes and focus on tensing then relaxing each of the following muscle groups for two to three seconds—all the while maintaining deep and slow breaths.
- Start with the feet and toes
- Move up to calves, knees, thighs, and buttocks
- Continue with the stomach and then back (separately)
- Tense and relax your chest followed by your arms and hands
- Finish with your neck, then jaw and lastly your eyes
4-7-8 breathing technique
Also called the relaxing breath, this exercisecan act as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. It is recommended by experts that you do not do it too frequently or for more than four breaths at one time during the first month of practice.
The ratio 4:7:8 is important:
- Exhale completely through your mouth and around your tongue while making a whooshing sound. Try pursing your lips slightly, even if it seems awkward
- Slowly close your mouth, inhale silently through your nose, and do a mental count of four
- Then, mentally count to seven as you hold your breath
- Exhale to a count of eight while making an audible whooshing sound
When you practice circular breath, you use the air in your cheeks to power your breathing. It is often a technique used by wind instrument musicians such as trumpet and saxophone players.
- Imagine your breath is coming in up from your toes. Now imagine it going up the back of your legs, up your spine and over your head.
- When your lungs are full, imagine your breath flowing over your head to a spot on your forehead, and pause there for three to six seconds. Now release the breath down the front of your body.
- Pause three seconds with empty lungs before repeating the “circle” around your body ten times. Imagine inhaling relaxation and exhaling stress.
Most people do not breathe fully and instead take shallow breaths into their chest. This type of breathing can actually increase anxiety and decrease your energy.
- Sit in a seat with your shoulders, head, and neck supported against the back of the chair
- Breathe in through your nose and let your belly fill with air. As you breathe in, feel your stomach rise
- Breathe out through your nose. As you breathe out, feel your belly lower
- Take three more full, deep breaths following the same pattern
Carbon dioxide rebreathing
Sometimes, a response to stress can result in hyperventilation. While this may feel like you aren’t getting enough air, you might actually be getting too muchoxygen and your carbon dioxide level might be too low. While carbon dioxide rebreathing may not stop a panic attack completely, it is nonetheless effective in decreasing symptoms and returning your breathing to a more normal level.
To do this:
- Cup your hands over your mouth (you can also use a small paper bag) and breathe slowly
- This will help you normalize the level of CO2 in your lungs by preventing its expulsion and promoting its recirculation back in your lungs
For people dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, practicing breathing techniques can be an effective way to help manage symptoms. Of course, for those suffering from severe depression, anxiety or stress, it is essential to consult with a licensed mental health practitioner for guidance and treatment particular suitable to your individual needs.
Hassan Khan Yousafzai is an author and digital marketing professional with a background in software engineering. Founder of Techvando, a creative branding firm in Pakistan that develops brand identities, optimizes brand platforms through digital marketing, increases audience engagement, and maximize conversion.