How does deep breathing help with anxiety?

October 1, 2021

For Mental Health Month 2021, we're publishing a series of articles on simple things you can do at home to help destress and deal with anxiety, plus improve your mood. For for on Mental Health Month, visit the Mental Health America website.

You probably don’t think about your breath that often–it’s just there, in the background, doing exactly what you need it to do. But paying attention to the way you breathe can have a big impact on your stress levels. 

“When you’re stressed or anxious, your breathing tends to be irregular and shallow,” says Kristoffer Rhoads, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the Memory & Brain Wellness Center at Harborview Medical Center. “Your chest cavity can only expand and contract so much, which makes it hard to get more air in.”

Your breath isn’t just part of your body’s stress response, it’s key to it. In fact, you can induce a state of anxiety or panic in someone just by having them take shallow, short breaths from their chest, Rhoads says.

That means that purposeful deep breathing can physically calm your body down if you’re feeling stressed or anxious.

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, helps to fully engage the diaphragm and increase the capacity of the lungs, which then enables more air to flow into your body. This technique can help calm your nerves, reduce stress and anxiety, and also help you improve your attention span and lower pain levels.

But why does deep breathing work? It has to do with how your nervous system functions.

Your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your rest and relax response.

These two parts of your nervous system can’t be turned on at the same time, which means if you work to activate one, the other will be suppressed.

Breathing deeply also allows for more carbon dioxide to enter your blood, which quiets down parts of the brain, like the amygdala, that handle your anxiety response. More carbon dioxide also helps synchronize your heartbeat and breathing, Rhoads says.

There are many different ways to breathe deeply, so play around to find one that feels natural to you. Try breathing in for four counts, then out for six. Or try square breathing: in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. As long as you’re still keeping your breathing slow and deep, there’s no pattern that’s better than the others.

Deep breathing may be simple, but it isn’t necessarily easy. It can quiet your nervous system in a short amount of time, though it probably won’t provide instant relief from all anxiety. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it and the more you’ll be able to use it in times of stress to help calm yourself down.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other healthcare provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition or treatment, or before starting a new healthcare regimen and never disregard medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you've read on this website.