Smoking weed used to be how I calmed my anxiety — until I realized I was just using cannabis to get good at breathing, a much cheaper, much healthier drug. By deeply inhaling, holding a hit in and then exhaling, I was unintentionally breathing in a 4-7-8 style, a technique developed by Andrew Weil based on the practice of pranayama in yoga. By inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body and mind far more than THC ever could.
The unfortunate flip side is that erratic breathing can light up the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response and leading to panic attacks, anxiety, depression and a flood of adrenaline and cortisol that’s generally bad for mental and physical health. “It’s very cyclical. Shallow breathing drops oxygen levels in your blood, which the body interprets as stress,” psychotherapist Carrie Nicholes explains. “A mindful or intentional breath can have a positive impact on anxiety and depression, but shallow or erratic breathing can trigger problematic physical and emotional symptoms.”
Still, when we lose our shit, few of us think about losing our breath along the way, let alone how to find it (or how a couple of deep breaths might at least temporarily relieve the stress of living amid a global pandemic). Fortunately, there are a number of therapist-backed breathing exercises aimed at pulling us out of primitive panic mode — because like any skill worth picking up in quarantine, breathing takes practice. Here then is how to master the fine art of inhaling and exhaling…
If breath work is at all intimidating, mindful breathing is a great way to start because it’s impossible to screw up. Whether you’re sitting, standing or lying down, all mindful breathing requires you to do is inhale, exhale, notice what you’re doing and then repeat it again. That’s it.
Or as Nicholes tells her patients: “Notice your breath. Don’t attempt to change it, just tune in to what’s happening with it in the moment. Are you inhaling through your mouth or nose? Are you exhaling through your mouth or nose? Are you feeling the rise and fall of your breath in your abdomen or chest? Are your breaths deep or shallow, slow or rapid?”
As rudimentary as it may seem, other breathing exercises will be less effective for people who aren’t as adept at slowing down and noticing their breath. Basically, you have to be able to walk before you can run.
Tactical breathing is utilized by both mental-health clinicians and the military alike. It’s also common in competitive sports, as it keeps athletes in high-pressure scenarios from going into fight-or-flight — a shift that causes the parts of their brain used for more sophisticated decision making to lose oxygen and impairing their judgment in the process.
To breathe this way, sit or stand in a comfortable position with your hand on your stomach, and deeply exhale from the diaphragm, emptying out all of your air. Then slowly inhale from your nose for four seconds, holding at the top for four seconds. Next, exhale for four seconds, holding at the bottom for four final seconds. Repeat for as many cycles as necessary.
Also known as square breathing, box breathing is similar to tactical breathing in that it involves controlled, incremental breaths, only it uses visualization, too. Sitting or standing, with a finger in the air (or just in your head), draw one line of a box as you inhale for four to five seconds, before drawing another line of the box as you exhale for four to five seconds. Do this until the box is completed.
Marriage and family therapist Jacob Kountz swears by box breathing and recommends most of his patients practice it daily, regardless of how they feel, but especially when they’re anxious. “It can be utilized as a cushion to help slow down those intense moments,” he explains. “The idea is that you’re attempting to keep both your mind distracted for a moment while you slow down your body. With enough practice, you’ll notice how much quicker symptoms of anxiety decrease.”
Balloon breathing also involves visualization. To start, lie down in a comfortable position, and place one hand on your stomach. Imagine it’s a balloon, filling up with air slowly and letting it deflate. “Some of the best breathing occurs when only the belly is involved,” says Kountz. “Too often people lift their shoulders and chest or involve their neck while breathing — practice keeping these areas still.” While he mostly uses balloon breathing with children, he adds that it “does work great with adults as it’s useful to not only decrease symptoms of anxiety, but has the ability to ground the mind by focusing on objects.”
Somatic-focused breathing directs deep breaths to specific parts of the body, with the goal of visualizing tension lifting from each with every inhale and exhale. “Imagine which places in your body need to have the most release, but focus on one at a time,” Kountz explains. “Begin to blow out all of your air while imagining these areas letting go of any stress or tension. It’s also helpful to place colors onto these areas such as picturing the red and orange areas slowly shifting into blue or green comfort colors.”
Of all the exercises, somatic-focused breathing requires the most time and patience because it calls for a full scan of the body from head to toe. But according to Kountz, it’s well worth the investment: “The possibilities are really endless with this breathing exercise.”
And wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?