Two Easy Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

Hey guess what? They’re also free!

12.13.16
claire-carusillo-anxiety-breathing-still-man-repeller-1

I cried last night. I don’t know why. I do know why. It’s because a KKK-endorsed real estate developer who hires people he’s trying to deport to build golf courses and glass-and-gold penises in the sky will be our president. It’s because since daylight savings, which, along with summer break, is a time-melting ordinance meant to aid and abet child labor in the American Corn Belt from which I hail, I miss the sun all together before I even get the stamina to leave my bed.

Breathing helps with crying. Meditative, or even just mindful breathing, is really the only thing we always have control over. During my sensitive girlhood, my dad would advise me to “take three deep breaths” whenever I was crying over perceived social slights or possible ghosts that lived in my bedroom. I always found it a bit condescending (you’re not my mom, Dad!!!), but he was on the right track. I came to formalized breathing exercises via Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a kind of mindfulness therapy that I go to weekly to counteract my anxiety disorder and my dormant (but reawakening!) panic disorder.

CBT has been instrumental in me becoming a grown-ass woman, but therapy is expensive. Apps like Headspace and Buddhify are helpful tools, but their interfaces are sometimes strange and non-intuitive and they cost money, too. Really, all you need to take from mindfulness practice is breathing, which is usually cost effective and easy to come by, unless you paid for an adventure tourism-core climbing trip on some Himalayan peak at an altitude that provides very little oxygen. Or if you go to an oxygen bar in Las Vegas after one too many with Scott Disick at TAO Beach.

I always return to two exercises. They’re both free, because you facilitate them yourself. When practicing breathing, sit with your feet rooted firmly on the ground or on a chair with your legs crossed. You can probably lie down, but when I do that, I always want to get under the covers and sleep or read some infuriating Twitter conversation for 20 minutes that could better be spent calming myself down.

The first one goes like this:
Breathe in through your nose for five counts. Hold that breath for five counts. Exhale through your mouth for five counts. Here, I’ll guide you.

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One Two Three Four Five

One Two Three Four Five

One Two Three Four Five

This slows breathing down considerably when it becomes shallow or you think you may hyperventilate. The task of counting also gives your brain a plan of action. Your mind is certainly allowed to wander; it will never be completely focused. Guide it, gently, back from whatever it’s dwelling on. I’ve learned to think of wandering thoughts as leaves in a river or clouds in the sky. I can observe the thoughts, and then watch them pass. Another thought will come, and I can observe that one and let it pass. On and on forever.

The second exercise goes like this:
Make a peace sign, palm inward and place it under your nose. Use your middle finger to close your right nostril and breathe in through your left nostril. Then close your left nostril and breathe in through your right nostril. Continue as long as you need; I usually try to go for two minutes.

breathing-anxiety-gif-man-repeller-5

 

This is called alternate-nostril breathing, and it is real science. Humans have one set of nerves that control the right side of the body and another set of nerves that control the left. These sets of nerves are in opposition: at any one time, the body has sympathetic nervous system dominance over one side of the body, and thus, one nostril. When our bodies have right sympathetic dominance and right nostril dominance, our heart rate and respiration increases. With left nostril dominance, our heart rate reduces. Alternate nostril breathing delivers oxygen to both sides of the brain at once, regulating our nervous systems.

If you’ve got no clean underwear, no hairs on your head that aren’t slicked with grease, nothing but expired yogurt in your fridge, no more toothpaste in the tube and no hope for what comes next, remember that you’ve always got this, the breath that’s continued working on your behalf for at least this long.

For more from Claire, check out The History of Acne and her gel peel investigation.

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  • Emma

    I really have to try the second one! That sounds really good.
    I got a tip for everyone with a pet (preferably dog or cat but I guess any kind of animal works:) but preferably one with fur) When I need to calm myself down i put my phone away, lie down on my sofa and places my dog on my chest. And puts my hand in her fur. Its nice to get the warmth of another on your chest, where my anxiety usually lives. This sounds really obvious but it really works! Although you can only do at home, and if you have a pet, but i assume some of you do! If so, try it! Think i will do this right now! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5194f37ad2b7a06106be524182402707df06946b382463668f1f67e38f5e16c2.jpg

    • Emma

      how many times did I use the word “really” in this text??:(( haha

    • Jen

      Just looking at that adorable fuzzy face is making me feel better 🙂

    • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

      amazing pup!!!

  • sin_plomo

    Great article will definitely try these but also found my test run of the second one quite difficult when I alarmingly realised my right nostril is blocked

    • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

      neti pot that nostril, baby!

  • Sabletoothtigre

    An acupuncturist told me that “mindful breathing” (so doing big nostril inhales and big mouthy exhales repeatedly) sends a signal to your heart to calm the frick down, so if you’re panicking and your heart rate is thumping like crazy, breathing physically calms you down.
    And then he poked me with lots of needles which ostensibly made my heart rate rise a whole lot, giving me ample platform to test this theory. It works.

    • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

      i got really into acupuncture last summer until i was like hmm this is maybe not a great way to invest money by investing in myself. i want cut-rate acupuncture!

  • Meg

    Breathing exercises are the best. I’ve been actively trying to go to more hatha yoga classes, followed by meditation. I’ve been way more chill/utilize breathing techniques more off the mat AND since class last night my jaw is way more relaxed despite my general stress levels being the same.

    • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

      damn girl, i’m proud!

  • Rose

    “If you’ve got no clean underwear, no hairs on your head that aren’t slicked with grease, nothing but expired yogurt in your fridge, no more toothpaste in the tube and no hope for what comes next, remember that you’ve always got this, the breath that’s continued working on your behalf for at least this long.”

    This line speaks to my soul right now as I navigate finals and a breakup. Claire, you’re killing it.

    • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

      <3

  • Rose

    I’ve also heard a lot about the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, where you breath in for four, hold for 7, and release for 8; try to repeat 5-10 times. I’ve tried it a few times but sometimes find I don’t have enough time to complete as many as I’d like before I need to get back to whatever I’m doing, OR I get distracted. Working on that.

    I also read something somewhere else today on breathing in for 5, exhaling for 3, repeat 8 times. A little easier to do than focusing on the 4-7-8 technique!

    • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

      the numbers in 4-7-8 are so hard for me!!!

  • I was recently recommended breathing techniques (by none other than a nutritionist who I was yammering on to about antibiotics and tearing up at the same time) and I’ve found them to really help. I’ll add these to practice – I find they’re helpful to practice even when not in a stressful situation.

    Besma | Curiously Conscious

  • Molly D

    (you’re not my mom, Dad!!!) hahaha

  • I do the first one already and it really does work. Going to give the second one a go the next time I’m feeling anxious

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • Thank you for this! Had my first panic attack (at work *facepalm*) a few weeks ago and I really need to take my health more seriously.

    • Olivia AP

      Like 2 weeks ago I had my first panic attack stucked in traffic after a hard week at work. And now I really appreciate posts like this, panic attacks are the worst!

      • CLAIRE CARUSILLO

        i’m so sorry about the panic attacks. i am a fellow sufferer and it’s so scary to be in public when it happens. pls stay safe & healthy as much as you can right now!

  • The second one is tried and tested! Gotta try the first one. Love your writing btw!

  • Hi Claire!
    First of all, wishing you a very merry Christmas! <3
    Just stumbled upon your blog for the first time, it looks so lovely here and this post is great. I've been using the app Inside Timer for a year or so now and am totally in love with their guided meditations, will check out the ones you mentioned.
    xx finja | http://www.effcaa.com