3 Simple Breathing Exercises to Try When Anxiety Strikes

Updated 05/08/19

We know it isn't pleasant, but try to remember the last time you felt anxious. How did your body respond? It may have felt as though your chest constricted as your mouth instantly dried, forming an uncomfortable lump in your throat and a tingle down your back. All the while, it seemed like you couldn't breathe. No one likes feeling this way, even if it's a small consolation to know that many of us have been there.

Perhaps it's more comforting to learn that there's something you can do the next time this happens—and it's absolutely free.

"Many times while experiencing anxiety, our brain is not receiving enough air, which tends to increase anxiety even further," Hillary Wright, the director of continuing education at Y7 Studio in New York City, says. "By learning to control our breath, we can simultaneously lessen our anxiety and calm our mind."

The simple yet effective trick of breathing exercises may seem like a no-brainer in these instances, but it can be hard to remember when you're in the midst of anxiety. That's why we asked Hillary to provide three easy routines to nail down now so that we can be prepared for whatever lies ahead. Read on to learn the steps.

a woman doing a breathing exercise
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Getting Started

"The best position to practice our breathing is sitting," Hillary says. "However, sometimes this can cause too much discomfort in the body, and if so, it's completely fine to do these exercises lying down."

Hillary points out that there's no wrong way to breathe, although it may feel odd at first to focus on it. "If you get overwhelmed, just take a deep inhale and sigh out the mouth a few times," she says.

Box Breath

Basics: "For this breath, you will use both the inhale and exhale, as well as retention of the breath and suspension of the breath," Hillary says. "Retention is holding the breath after inhale, suspension is holding the breath at the bottom of the exhale with no air in the lungs. Imagine these four parts of the breath as a box."

Practice: "Inhale to the count of three, hold for the count of three, exhale to the count of three, hold for the count of three," she says.

Rounds: "Repeat this for five to 10 rounds," Hillary notes. "If the count of three is too much for you, feel free to start with a smaller number. You can also increase the count as you become more comfortable."

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Samana Pranayama

Basics: "Samana means equal, so this is our equal ratio breathing," Hillary says. "This is similar to the box breath, without retention or suspension."

Practice: "To do this breath you can inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of four," she notes.

Rounds: "Continue for five to 10 rounds or as long as you would like," she says. "This helps equalize the nervous system by balancing the inhale and exhale."

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Nadi Shodhana

Basics: This breathing exercise is easy to do at your desk or during your commute since all it takes are a few moves of your fingers. 

Practice: "To do this, take the thumb of your right hand and close your right nostril. Breathe in through the left nostril. Next, use the ring finger of your right hand to close your left nostril and breathe out the right nostril," she says. "Continue to hold the left nostril as you breathe in through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril, and breathe out through the left nostril. Finally, continue to hold the right nostril closed and breathe in the left nostril."

Rounds: Continue this routine for five to 10 rounds," she says. "You will end with an exhale out the right nostril."

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