Why is breath control so important when you have anxiety?

Anxiety is one of the growing mental illnesses affecting Australians. In 2007, anxiety disorders were the most common mental disorders, affecting 14% of all people aged 16-85 years in the 12 months prior to the survey. The word anxiety can sometimes be misinterpreted, so it is good to clarify what is meant when we say someone has anxiety. Anxiety disorders generally involve feelings of tension, distress or nervousness. Specific anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, agoraphobia and generalised anxiety disorder have some symptoms in common such as a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, shaking and having difficulty breathing. (World Health Organisation, 2008).

Anxiety can sometimes be debilitating and anyone who has had a panic attack before knows just how frightening it can be, especially when you don’t have any strategies to help manage it. An important strategy to help manage your anxiety is breathing. Breathing sounds simple but it is easy to take our breathing for granted and if you have anxiety it is important to understand how important breath control is when trying to control the mind.

There is evidence that supports the link between breathing patterns and emotional states. Research by Pierre Phillipot showed that each emotion is associated with a different breathing pattern, for example when participants felt anxious, fearful or sad, the breathing is shallow and quick and when feeling happy and joyful, the breathing is slower and deeper. When we have an anxiety attack the sympathetic nervous system goes into a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode. This causes our breathing to become shallow, rapid and increases our heart rate and blood pressure to prepare for survival. When this happens, our thoughts are also quick and because we aren’t getting enough quality oxygen to the brain it is difficult to think clearly. When this occurs and it is unwanted then you want to active the parasympathetic nervous system otherwise known as “rest and digest” which lowers the heart rate and blood pressure and the breath is long and deep breaths which calms the mind and body. The parasympathetic nervous system can be activated by slowing down the breath with breathing exercise.

 Breathing Exercises to calm the mind and body when feeling anxious….
A breathing exercise to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is called 4-7-8 breathing. This technique helps you when you are feeling anxious and calms the mind and body. The following steps describes how to do the breathing exercise;
1. Inhale for 4 seconds
2. Then hold the breath for 7 seconds
3. Exhale for 8 seconds.
It sounds simple but by doing this you slow down the breathing and calm the mind and body and it forces the mind to focus on your breathing and takes you focus way from anxiety provoking thoughts or worries. In the beginning try doing this exercise for 4 cycles and then when you feel comfortable you can increase the amount of cycles. You may feel slightly lightheaded as the breath regulates but over time and with practice the effects become more powerful. Try and do this when you feel anxiety creeping in and atleast 2 twice per day to feel and experience the benefit of breath control. For a video on how to perform the 4-7-8 breathing technique see Dr. Weil demonstrate it in this video. 


World Health Organization, ‘International Classification of Diseases’, viewed 17 December 2008, https://www.who.int/classifications/icd/en/
Pierre Philippot , Gaëtane Chapelle & Sylvie Blairy ‘Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion’ Cognition & Emotion, Volume 16, 2002 – Issue 5 Published Online: 09 Sep 2010

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