5 Breathing Techniques To Help You With Anxiety, Stress, and Sleep

woman breathing with eyes closed

Most of us deal with stress and anxiety on a day to day basis. Some of us cope well, some of us do not. Today, I’m going over 5 breathing techniques to help you with anxiety, stress, and sleep.

I’ve learned these techniques from silent retreats, yoga instructors, coaches, and books. I’m hoping you’ll find them as valuable as I have.

Why even practice these 5 breathing techniques to help with anxiety, stress, and sleep?

Good research on how breathing can improve our lives is limited. But some studies are showing there may be potential for it to improve performance, concentration, and as a way to reduce stress and anxiety. (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

What we do know is that breathing can calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system. Which can regulate bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and sexual arousal. It’s also the primary system involved in our fight or flight response.

What I find more important is that taking time to breathe gets us to slow down. We operate our days checking boxes, crossing off to-do lists, and moving from one thing to the next without thinking.

I don’t know about you, but most of my days I feel like I’m radiating. My body and mind are constantly racing. It’s like that scene in Talladega Nights. I’m all jacked up on Mountain Dew.

all jacked up on mountain dew

By the end of the day, I feel physically and mentally exhausted. I’m completely wiped out from my day of “task sprints.” These breathing techniques are how I settled down and reset. 

Breathing Technique #1: Box Breathing

Box breathing, also known as square breathing, or 4-4-4-4 breathing is a technique some Navy Seals use to stay calm and relaxed in difficult situations.

How to do it:

  • 4-second inhale through the nose
  • 4-second holding the breath
  • 4-second exhale through the mouth
  • 4-second hold as the lungs are emptied

As you inhale through the nose try to fill your belly with air. Place your hand on your belly and feel it expand. As you exhale, try and relax your shoulders away from your ears.

If this is your first time trying a breathing technique, try one set. Work your way up to 3 to 5 sets every day. You can do this multiple times per day if you’d like.

Breathing Technique #2: 4-7-8 Breathing

4-7-8 breathing was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. It has roots in an old yoga technique called pranayama, which helps gain control over your breathing. 

How to do it:

  • Start by exhaling all of your breath through the mouth
  • Take 4 seconds to inhale through the nose
  • Hold for 7 seconds
  • Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds
  • Repeat for 4 cycles

This breathing technique is largely used to help people fall asleep. It’s a great way to end your day, as an addition to your bedtime routine, or before a mid-day nap.

Breathing Technique #3: Take 5

I was inspired by the spinal surgeon, Dr. Jack Sheppard from the show Lost. 13 hours Into his first solo procedure he realized he had made a mistake and was going to lose his patient. 

His choice was to let the fear, stress, and anxiety in. But only for 5 seconds. So he started to count to 5. The fear, stress, and anxiety started to diminish and he addressed the challenge that was in front of him.

How to do it:

Taking 5 deep breaths in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Anytime throughout the day. No strict rules around it. You don’t have to count your inhales, exhales, or hold your breath. But you can if you want to. The idea is to step away from whatever it is that is causing you anxiety or stress and to breathe. To give yourself an opportunity to slow down and think.

Plus, it sounds cool when you say it. Hey, be right back. I’m going to take 5.

Breathing Technique #4: 3-6-3-6 Breathing

3-6-3-6 breathing is another breathing technique inspired by Pranayama. This is the breathing technique I am least versed in and have not practiced as much as the others. Please forgive me if I screw it up. 

How to do it:

Begin by moving your hand from the navel. Take 3 seconds to inhale, hold for 6 seconds, exhale for 3 seconds, and hold for 6 seconds.

Now move your hand to the bottom of the rib cage. Take 3 seconds to inhale, hold for 6 seconds, exhale for 3 seconds, and hold for 6 seconds.

Move your hand to your collarbone or chest. Repeat the same breathing pattern.

Now try and connect all three. See if you can feel the breath move from your chest to the rib cage, and finally to your naval.

Breathing Technique #5: Muscle Relaxation Breathing

First, let’s all take a good look at the thumbnail for this video. Doesn’t it look like I’m trying to push out a stubborn poop?

Adult hat back on.

This breathing technique has been the most helpful for me. The University of Michigan has a wonderful outline of this technique. But below, I’ll briefly cover how to do it. 

How to do it:

In muscle relaxation breathing you tense a group of muscles as you inhale, and relax them as you exhale. When your body is physically relaxed it’s difficult to feel anxious.

Take 4 to 10 seconds to inhale. As you do, tense your muscles. But not to the point where it is painful. As you exhale, release the tension. You should not release the tension gradually. I’ve done it both ways and found both to be helpful. Relax for 20 seconds and move to the next muscle group. 

There is a specific order to do this. But if it’s not possible to work in this order due to time constraints, pick a few you find most helpful.

  • hands
  • wrist and forearms
  • bicep and upper arm
  • shoulders
  • forehead
  • around the eyes
  • cheeks and jaw
  • around the mouth
  • back of neck
  • front of the neck
  • chest
  • back
  • stomach
  • hips and butt
  • thighs 
  • lower leg

If it helps, I’ve found the hands, shoulders, jaw, and butt to be the most helpful.

Why do these breathing techniques have you hold your breath?

When you hold your breath CO2 builds up in the blood. This can enhance the inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which calms and relaxes us.

Because of this, you may get light-headed or dizzy after a few rounds. It’s nice to practice these breathing techniques while seated and in a safe environment. I recommend doing them with someone or with a coach if it is your first time.

What is the best breathing technique for anxiety?

It’s pretty natural to want to know what the ‘best’ method is for anything we’re trying to do. But I’m not sure the answer is all that valuable.

We constantly chase ‘the best,’ which can lead us to never getting started and ignoring the process. Plus, we’ll never really know what ‘the best’ method is. It’s a question you can always be asking yourself.

Instead of asking the best, ask yourself “how’s this working for me.”

Pick one of the techniques and practice it CONSISTENTLY for 2 to 4 weeks. At the end of 2 to 4 weeks ask yourself how is this working for me. If it’s working, keep it up. If not, try another technique.

What are some other breathing techniques for anxiety and stress?

I was reluctant to add this section because human beings have a tendency to jump from one thing to the next, without giving it enough practice and time to work. 

Abdomen breathing (diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing): Designed to help strengthen your diaphragm. Which is the primary muscle involved in breathing. 

Alternate nostril breathing: The main benefit is to lower stress. It involves closing one nostril and inhaling through the other. You then exhale through the opposing nostril and repeat the process.

Equal breath breathing: Another Pranayama technique. It involves inhaling for the same amount of time as you’re exhaling.

Lion’s breath breathing: Start by spreading your fingers wide. Stick out your tongue and stretch it towards your chin. Exhale with force while making a “ha” sound. Repeat for a few rounds.

Long exhale breathing: Lay flat on your back with your hand on your belly. Start to count your exhales. Once they are even, slowly lengthen the exhale so it is at a 1:2 ratio with your inhale. For example, 3 seconds inhale and 6 second exhale. 

There are many more breathing techniques and it would be easy to go down a rabbit hole. Pick one, practice it for 2 to 4 weeks, and try another one. 

How do I calm down my breathing? 

Any of these breathing techniques will help to calm down your breathing. Take 5 in particular is an easy way to calm down your breathing without having to think too much about it. 

If you find yourself in situations where it may be difficult to step outside or concentrate on your breathing. Try simply taking a long slow breath in through your nose. Hold that breath for 3 seconds and exhale through your lips. As you exhale, try and relax your face, jaw, and shoulders.

This is a simple technique you can use after opening a stressful email, during a tough phone call, or even while in an argument with someone. 

How do I relax my diaphragm?

Start by sitting down in a comfortable position. Take a deep breath and as you exhale bring your shoulders away from your ears. With your next inhale and exhale relax your jaw and neck. Take one hand and place it on your upper chest.

As you inhale and exhale see if you can feel your diaphragm move. Breath in slow enough through your nose so that you can feel your belly move your hand up and down.

Got breathing techniques?

Have you spent time meditating or using breathing techniques to help you de-stress? If so, what’s worked well for you? What hasn’t?

Carve out a few minutes at the conclusion of your day. Practice one of the breathing techniques and see how you feel? 


Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash