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Is Deep Breathing an Effective Way to Lessen Anxiety?

Anxiety is an unfortunately common part of modern life. Whether it’s work responsibilities, financial issues, relationship struggles, or general worrying, feeling overwhelmed by stress is a frequent burden for many people. While some anxiety is a normal part of being human, chronic anxiety can negatively impact both physical and mental health. That’s why having accessible tools to lessen anxiety is so valuable. One such technique is deep breathing. But does it actually work? Let’s explore the evidence behind using deep breathing to calm the mind and body.

How Could Deep Breathing Help Anxiety?

To understand how deep breathing may reduce anxiety, it helps to first look at what happens in the body when anxious. Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate all increase. Muscles tense and prepare for “fight or flight.”

Deep breathing activates the opposite parasympathetic nervous system response. As you inhale deeply through the nose and exhale slowly out the mouth, signals are sent to the brain to relax. Heart rate and blood pressure decrease as you breathe slowly and deeply. More oxygen circulates to nourish tissues. The mind has something calm and rhythmic to focus on instead of anxious thoughts.

The Science on Deep Breathing for Anxiety

Numerous scientific studies have looked at deep breathing as an intervention for anxiety, with largely positive results:

  • A meta-analysis of 11 studies found it significantly reduced anxiety compared to no intervention. Effects were greater when done for longer than 5 minutes.
  • MRI scans show deep breathing techniques activate parts of the brain involved in relaxation and attention.
  • Multiple studies found deep breathing before anxiety-provoking tasks lowered self-reported anxiety levels.
  • In patients undergoing surgery, deep breathing lowered pre-operative anxiety more than medication.
  • Guiding ICU patients through deep breathing reduced anxiety scores by over 30% within one 5-minute session.

Key Factors for Anxiety Relief

Research points to these key factors that make deep breathing most effective for lessening anxiety:

  • Taking slower, controlled breaths of about 5-7 per minute. Fast, shallow breathing won’t have the same calming effects.
  • Breathing with the diaphragm and abdomen rather than just the chest. This engages the lungs optimally.
  • Making the exhale longer than the inhale helps trigger relaxation.
  • Practicing it regularly, even without acute anxiety, makes it more natural to apply when needed.
  • Combining it with mindfulness, meditation, or yoga.
  • Doing it for at least 5-10 minutes per session.

Real-Life Examples of Deep Breathing for Anxiety

Beyond clinical research, deep breathing is a time-tested anxiety aid used in many real-world contexts:

  • The 4-7-8 deep breathing method is recommended by therapists and as first-line treatment in anxiety guides.
  • Pregnant women report deep breathing helps decrease anxiety during labor and delivery.
  • Performing artists and athletes use deep breathing to calm nerves before auditions and competitions.
  • Militaries have utilized controlled deep breathing for resilience training.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs incorporate deep breathing as a core practice.

Potential Limitations

While evidence strongly supports deep breathing for anxiety relief, it’s important to note:

  • It may work less well as standalone treatment for severe clinical anxiety compared to therapy and medication.
  • Those with health conditions like COPD must clear deep breathing with a doctor first.
  • Some people may find it difficult at first and require practice to do it correctly.
  • You must remember to do it in anxious moments, which takes conditioning.
  • Benefits are transient if not practiced regularly.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a wide body of research along with ample anecdotal reports support deep breathing as an accessible and effective tool for reducing anxiety. When done correctly for 5-10 minutes with the exhale longer than the inhale, deep breathing can activate relaxation pathways in the brain and body. Especially when made into an ongoing practice, deep breathing can lessen anxiety associated with stressful situations and everyday worries. While not a cure-all, it is a free, portable, side effect-free skill that provides a sense of control over anxiety.