Why Deep Breathing Helps Calm Anxiety

Anxiety Deep Breathing

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash


Anxiety is a challenge. Learning to cope is difficult. But it is doable. An effective solution is easy and readily available. Deep breathing helps calm anxiety.

Friends and family know I’ve endured heartbreaking physical and emotional challenges. So, I’m often asked how I cope with anxiety.

They see my eternal optimism as at odds with the turmoil I’ve gone through. They wonder what my secret is for dealing with life’s difficulties. I tell them that it isn’t a secret. The most effective technique I’ve discovered to calm anxiety is deep breathing.

How and why does deep breathing work to calm anxiety? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that about 40 million adults in America have an anxiety disorder, making anxiety the country’s most common mental illness.

If deep breathing exercises can help, surely more people should add this technique to their anxiety-busting toolkits. I combed research for some scientific answers.

Deep Abdominal Breathing Reduces Anxiety and Stress

According to the American Institute of Stress, 20-30 minutes of deep breathing daily effectively reduces anxiety and stress. It must be breathed deeply through the abdomen to produce the best results. During deep abdominal breathing, the oxygen breathed in stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This, in turn, produces a feeling of calmness and body connectedness that diverts attention from stressful, anxious thoughts and quiets what’s going on in the mind.

Researchers Find Why Deep Breathing Induces Tranquility and Calm

Research published in Science uncovered what may be a likely reason deep breathing is so successful in bringing about a sense of calmness and tranquility. In mice studies, Stanford University researchers discovered that a neuronal subpopulation in the animals’ primary breathing rhythm generator projects directly to a center of the brain with a key role in “generalized alertness, attention, and stress.”

This subgroup of neurons belongs to a cluster of neurons in the brainstem that controls breathing initiation. When scientists removed the neuronal subgroup from the brains of the mice, it did not affect breathing, yet the mice remained calm. Their calm behaviors increased while they spent less time in agitated or aroused states. Further research, they said, should explore mapping the full range of functions and emotions controlled by the breathing center.

Deep Breathing Turns Off Body’s Response to Stress

The body automatically triggers the stress response when you’re anxious and tense. This is known as the “fight or flight” syndrome and is the physiological reaction that occurs from the release of chemicals cortisol and adrenaline. Initially, the stress response helped man respond to external threats to his existence, like fire, flood, marauding wild animals, or an attack by members of rival clans.

While not so applicable today, the body’s stress response still throttles up when it senses danger or a threat. Awareness of the danger when it suddenly appears helps us take preventive action to save lives.

Yet when stress goes on indefinitely, and the stress response is constant or chronic, it wreaks incredible havoc on the body. Not only does anxiety increase, but so do many health risks, such as obesity, heart disease, and digestive problems.

Deep breathing, however, turns off the body’s natural stress response, allowing heart rate and blood pressure to decrease, the tension in muscles to relax, and promotes an overall resiliency build-up to better withstand life’s stressors and anxiety.

How Does Deep Breathing Affect Stress?

In a pilot study published in Neurological Sciences, researchers said their results point to the possibility that deep breathing can induce mood and stress improvement effectively. The study utilized both self-reports and objective parameters. They noted that deep breathing, particularly practiced during yoga and qigong, has long been considered beneficial to overall well-being.

Research on yoga, the oldest known technique for relaxing, has found improvements of a “remarkable” nature in blood pressure, heart rate, body composition, motor abilities, respiratory function, cardiovascular function, and more. Also, researchers found positive effects in mood states, such as anxiety and perceived stress, including deep breathing’s effect on reducing tension anxiety.

Breath Control (Slow, Deep Breathing) Can Decrease Anxiety

Research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that slow, deep breathing can decrease anxiety by promoting changes that enhance autonomic, psychological, and cerebral flexibility through many mutual interactions.

  • These include links between central nervous system activities related to emotional control, parasympathetic activity, and psychological well-being.
  • The psychological and behavioral outputs resulting from these changes produce an increase in alertness, relaxation, vigor, comfort, and pleasantness and a decrease in anxiety, depression, anger, arousal, and confusion.

In a study published in Frontiers in Physiology, researchers Donald J. Noble and Shawn Hochman investigate how sensory nerves around the chest play in deep breathing’s ability to relax during exhalation, thereby triggering baroreceptors (another set of sensors) in arteries. Both sets of sensors, the researchers said, feed into the brainstem, and the resulting slow brain waves produce a state of relaxed alertness. The idea is six breaths per minute, note researchers.

What if You’re Chronically Anxious?

If you suspect that you may have an anxiety disorder and deep breathing only works sometimes to help dampen your anxiety level, you may benefit from seeking treatment from a doctor or mental health professional.

Symptoms of chronic anxiety include but are not limited to exhaustion and fatigue, constant worrying, sleep problems, decreased or increased appetite, digestion problems, difficulty concentrating, and lack of energy.

There’s no shame involved in asking for help to learn how to overcome anxiety. While medication and talk therapy may be necessary as you work through coping effectively with anxiety, deep breathing and other therapies will also be incorporated into the healing plan.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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