Breathe Your Way Out of Anxiety


Dr. Tyler Fortman 

Summer in Chicago can mean patio dining, beach days, and Ravinia.  It can also mean panic at a movie in the park, claustrophobia on the L, and debilitating worry about the next social event.  Sometimes these feelings are so powerful that they altogether interfere with the potential to enjoy the sun, city, and top ranked Cubs and Sox!

The catch is that anxiety isn’t inherently a bad thing.  At times, it helps us recognize dangers and then keep ourselves safe from those dangers.  But when you aren’t in danger, anxiety disorders can trick you into believing that you are.  Specific phobias and panic disorder trick you into believing that you’re dying or that the target of your fear will kill you.   Social anxiety tricks you into believing that you will be isolated from your community.  Worse still, your “natural” attempts to protect yourself from a non-existent threat (e.g., through shallow breathing, racing heartbeat, avoidance, etc.) lead you into increasing distress.  Anxiety at this level no longer serves you.  But what can be done about it?

Just take a deep breath, right?

Well, this advice is wise, but incomplete.  In fact, most panicked people who try to “just breathe” feel that they can’t get enough air or any air at all.  The harder they work to breathe, the more uncomfortable and panicked they feel.  Remember, if you can talk, you are breathing.

Despite these common pitfalls, deep breathing reduces anxiety when done correctly because it allows your heartrate to slow and your muscles to relax.  These physical changes engage a feedback loop that tells your brain that you are okay.  So, what’s the trick to using deep breathing to reduce your anxiety?

Effective breathing engages your diaphragm, not your chest and shoulders!  Your diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs that separates your chest cavity from your abdomen.  When you breathe, your diaphragm contracts by flattening out, creating a vacuum in your lungs that pulls air in (your inhale).  When the diaphragm relaxes, it pushes up on your lungs causing pressure that releases your stale air (your exhale).  If your “deep breaths” involve lifted shoulders and expanding your chest, but no movement in your abdomen, check out these steps to improve the effectiveness of your breathing and reduce your anxiety.


(Note: Breathing shallowly, from your chest and not your diaphragm, will give you all the air you need to survive.  However, you will likely feel tightened muscles that may exacerbate your panic.  It’s this tightness that feels like a heart attack when, in fact, you are having a panic attack.  This shallow chest breathing also accelerates your heart rate and can make you feel dizzy.  Again, you are getting plenty of air to survive, but breathing diaphragmatically can reduce these symptoms and ultimately your anxiety.) 

8 Steps to Anxiety Reducing Breathing:  

  1. Place one hand over your belly button and your other hand on your chest. Obviously, your hands aren’t needed to breathe, but they can serve as an aid to guide you as you learn to breathe from your diaphragm.  Pay attention to the sensations in your hands.  This will help you learn to breath from your belly and not your chest.
  1. Gently exhale all of the air in your lungs. You can’t take a truly deep breath unless you remove the stale air from your lungs.  Notably, think of this action as more of a yawn or a sigh than a labored, pushing action.  This will relax the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and upper body and prepare you to deeply inhale from your abdomen.
  1. With your mouth closed, pause before inhaling.
  1. Through your nose, begin to inhale. Do so by slowly pushing your stomach outward.  This motion flattens your diaphragm and pulls air into your lungs. You should notice your stomach moving outward momentarily before air begins to enter your lungs.  When you sense the air has completely filled your belly, your chest will start to expand.  This is the completion of your breath.    Your head and shoulders should not move.  Don’t force any more air into your body than is comfortable.  Doing so will cause you to tense the muscles in your upper body and, actually, lead to less effective breathing.
  1. Pause again. Because you’re breathing is more efficient, your body will be most comfortable breathing slowly.  Allow it to do so.
  1. Pucker your lips (e.g., as you do to blow out birthday candles) and slowly exhale. Your pursed lips will slow the speed of the air and help you to breathe slowly.  Notably, you should feel a slight contraction in your abdominal muscles.

Consider this – cell death happens faster from exposure to carbon dioxide (internally produced from our cells’ functions) than it does from lack of oxygen.  Simply put, your exhale is every bit as important for your relaxation as your inhale!

  1. Pause again.
  1. Repeat steps 4-7 until you feel less anxious.

If you’re used to breathing from your chest instead of your diaphragm, this process may feel strange.  It’s important to practice!  Begin by practicing (in seated, standing, and lying positions) at least 5-10 minutes on 4 or 5 days each week.  If you continue to struggle with anxiety, seek the help of experts!