Guest post written by Kasia Kalinowska.
Your chest feels like it’s bearing a bowling ball.
Your heart pounds.
Your breath is shallow and maybe you even feel a little tingly.
If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know what I’m describing. Those symptoms are terrifying and make you feel so out of control.
What’s worse, panic symptoms can feel so debilitating that the fear of them can itself even cause a panic attack.1
Can’t your body just let you catch a break?
Even if you don’t experience panic attacks, other anxiety symptoms can be incredibly disruptive to your life, too.
Have you ever tried completing an important work project or being a good friend when your thoughts won’t stop racing? There should be medals for that achievement.
Whether you experience anxiety or panic attacks—or both—you’re not alone.
Did you know? Two to three percent of Americans experience panic attacks annually.2
That’s millions of people suffering from these symptoms every single year. And even more people have anxiety disorders—an estimated 19.1 percent of American adults, to be exact.3
Luckily, when it comes to anxiety and panic attacks, you have options.
Clinical psychotherapy is a great place to start. Many people with anxiety disorders report their symptoms improving after just 8-10 sessions.4
For people whose anxiety symptoms or panic attacks are associated with trauma, more specialized forms of therapy may be appropriate. These include exposure therapy, trauma focused-cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).5
But sometimes, when those feelings come on, you don’t have the time to wait for a long-term approach.
You need a quick solution—a simple salve for your soul.
Believe it or not, your best superpower against feelings of overwhelm or panic is your own body. One of the most effective and easy ways to harness your body’s power to defeat anxiety in the moment is tapping into your breath.
You read that right: you just need your lungs and the air flowing in and out of them.
In fact, people have used pranayama—a type of breathwork originating in Ayurvedic yoga—to clear and focus their minds for hundreds of years. Plus, clinical evidence now suggests what yogis have known for a long time: breathwork is a powerful anti-anxiety tool.6
With breathwork in your arsenal, anxiety symptoms and panic attacks don’t have to be so scary anymore.
Read on to learn some breathing exercises you can turn to when you need them—so that you’re ready to soothe your mind when it tries to get in your way.
Body Scan Breathing for Relaxation and Focus
Scanning your body hones your attention and centers you in the present moment.
This breathing exercise works by bringing your focus to specific areas of your body and eventually to the sensation of breathing. It is adapted from a common mindfulness practice used in many guided meditations.7
Use this exercise in public or private, whenever you need to bring your attention back to the present moment.
Try it yourself: Sitting or lying in a comfortable position, close your eyes and start deepening your breathing. As you take slower, deeper breaths, begin to notice the sensation of air flowing in through your nostrils and out of your mouth.
Notice what parts of your body expand and contract as you take these breaths.
After a cycle of several breaths like this, bring your attention to the top of your head and slowly scan down your body, observing the different sensations and tensions you may be holding in each part as you reach it.
Travel slowly down your head, neck, torso, arms, hips, thighs… all the way down to your toes.
Then, bring your attention back to your breath as it comes in and out. Notice any other sensations in the space around you. Any sounds you hear besides your breath? Any smells? And then bring your focus back to your breath.
Continue this exercise for as long as you need and, each time you try it, notice the difference in the amount of focus you are able to bring to your body. This will likely vary from day to day, but will improve as you practice more.
Use Box Breathing to Calm Yourself Like Navy SEALS Do
Box breaths, sometimes called equal breaths, work to temper your fight-or-flight response.
This breathing technique is so simple and effective that Navy SEALs rely on it to center themselves in high-pressure situations.8
It is rooted in the Sama Vritti pranayama technique, which roughly translates to “equal mental fluctuations.”9
Use this technique when you’re out and about and need relief from anxiety symptoms fast.
Try it yourself: Sitting in a comfortable seat with your spine straight, begin by breathing in for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Breathe in again for a count of four.
Repeat as many times as you need.
Release Tension With the Lion’s Breath Breathing Technique
This pranayama-based exercise is grounded in the power of a focused, forceful exhale. Lion’s breath will help you relax your face, jaw, and tongue as you spread your mouth wide.10
Since this exercise is more active and expressive, save this one to do in private. You’ll be glad you took the time to challenge your body when you feel that newfound looseness in your face and jaw.
Go all out!
Try it yourself: Depending on your preference and ability, kneel or sit in a comfortable position. If kneeling, lean back and rest your hips right on your heels.
Breathe in through your nose. Breathe out through your open mouth, vocalizing a “ha.” As you breathe out, open your mouth as wide as it will go and stick your tongue out towards your chin.
Try to release the tension in your face as much as you can as you inhale again.
Repeat as many times as you’d like, reversing the cross of your ankles at the halfway point of your practice.
Alternate Nostril Breathing to Ground Your Brain
Alternate nostril breathing—or Nadi Sodhana pranayama—is one of the more complex pranayama techniques. It involves using the fingers to alternate blocking off nostrils so that breaths come in one nostril and come out the other.
When you have the space and privacy to try alternate nostril breathing, challenge yourself with it. Feel the rhythm and energy of the breaths and your hand guiding them.
Of course, before trying this exercise, ensure your hands—especially your fingers— are clean enough to touch your face.
Try it yourself: Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight. Bring your right hand up to your face and place your pointer and middle fingers up to the space between your eyebrows.
Bring your thumb to your right nostril, blocking it, and inhale through your left nostril. Hold your breath for a moment.
Then, block your left nostril with your ring finger and unblock your right nostril. Exhale through your right nostril.
Inhale through your right nostril, hold your breath for a moment, and then block your right nostril with your thumb again. Unblock your left nostril and exhale through it.
Repeat until you feel a comfortable rhythm and continue for as long as you would like. At the end of the exercise, finish with a deep inhale and exhale through both nostrils.
Want to take your breathing exercise skills to the next level?
Now that you know all about the fantastic benefits and different forms of breathing exercises, it’s time to put them into practice.
And I really do mean practice.
You can’t truly focus on your breath when you’re peeking one eye open to check if you’re doing it right and Googling “pranayama” to remember what that online article was talking about.
Keep reviewing these exercises in your daily life to really get them down. That way, when you most need them, they’ll come to you easily.
But what if you really want to deepen your breathwork practice?
Sometimes, learning something from an online tutorial just doesn’t cut it.
You’re convinced that breathwork is a fantastic way to ground yourself in anxious moments, but even if you practice a lot, how do you know you’re doing it right?
I get that.
You don’t want to worry that you’re wasting your time while your anxiety symptoms get the best of you. That’s why I’m confident that the best way to experience the full restorative benefits of breathing exercises is to have an expert guide you.
Lucky for you, we’ve got just the thing.
Sign up for Thursday night's Flow to Restoration yoga classes at Sacred Moon Healing Center in Manchester, NH. This class, and our teacher Alyssa, specifically uses a lot of energy clearing techniques as well as stress-reducing breathing exercises so you’ll walk out of the studio feeling better than when you walked in.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms.”
Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Panic Disorder.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Anxiety Disorders.”
HelpGuide, “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.”
Elizabeth Scott, PhD, “Body Scan Meditation.”
Yoga Basics, “Sama Vritti Pranayama (Box Breath or Equal Breathing).”
Ann Pizer, “How to Do Lion's Breath (Simha Pranayama) in Yoga.”
About the Author
Kasia is a medical copywriter based in New York City. After studying public health and the history of medicine at Princeton, she’s spent her time working in marketing and public health. This background has led her to work with dozens of healthcare professionals and understand the needs of their businesses and their clients. She loves writing copy for her health and wellness clients so that they can keep focusing on making the world a happier, healthier place. Kasia is also a published creative writer and humorist with bylines in publications such as Slackjaw, HAD, and The Belladonna. You can read more of her writing and learn about her copywriting services on her website and follow her over at @KasiaKalino on Twitter.