Breathing and Anxiety

The way you breathe and your central nervous system, share a very close relationship, in that they both impact one another.

Awareness of breath is not often a top priority, besides, it does happen automatically. However, you do have the ability to consciously change the way you breathe and when you are able to understand how the breath, mind and body work together, there are healthy rewards.

Think of breathing as a continuum.  At one end of the spectrum, you have no awareness or conscious control of your breathing.  This breath is what many people do most of the time.  It keeps you alive, but doesn’t necessarily allow you to thrive.  At the other end, you have very controlled breathing based on the breathing exercises (pranayama) used by yogis.  Pranayama can be useful but are often short term exercises which don’t necessarily improve your natural breath.

In the middle of the continuum is a natural breath pattern that is extremely healthy and beneficial.  World renowned yoga teacher and author of The Breathing Book, Donna Farhi, calls it the ‘Essential Breath’.  This is how you are meant to breathe but is often a pattern that becomes lost.

Two major characteristics of the natural breath include breathing using the diaphragm and a slightly longer exhalation than inhalation.

Breathe low

In a natural breath, the diaphragm is the major breathing muscle accounting for around 70-75% of the breathing effort.  When you are stressed and anxious this process changes.  Your breathing tends to go higher up into the secondary respiratory muscles of the upper chest and neck.

Breathing into the upper chest stimulates the central nervous system to be on alert, while breathing diaphragmatically encourages the central nervous system to chill out.

In yoga, this method of diaphragmatic breathing is sometimes referred to as ‘belly breathing’ because there is a distinctive expansion of the belly when you breathe in and a relaxing of the belly when you breathe out.

Changing your breath from chest breathing to diaphragmatic breathing can not only lower your anxiety levels, but can also encourage better function of the heart, digestion, immune system and reproduction.

One way to feel the diaphragmatic breath is to lie on your belly with your arms folded in front and your head resting on the back of your hands.  In this position when you inhale you can feel the belly expand into the floor, and when you breath out you can feel the belly relax away from the floor.  After breathing this way for a while, the body may often naturally restore the diaphragmatic breath.

Breathe out

When stressed, you may also have a dominant inhalation and forget to breath out fully.  From a yogic perspective, the in-breath is associated with action, activity and the sympathetic nervous system – which acts as an ‘accelerator’ of the mind-body.  In contrast the out-breath is associated with rest, relaxation, letting go and the parasympathetic nervous system, the equivalent of a ‘braking system’ of the mind-body.

One way of restoring the length of the exhalation is to blow out slowly and gently through a straw or through pursed lips.  After about 5 minutes the body will often restore this pattern of exhalation naturally.

According to Farhi:  “The process of breathing lies at the centre of every action and reaction we make or have.  By returning to the breath we go to the core of the stress response.”

So, if mild anxiety is an issue, restoring your body’s natural pattern of breathing ‘low and out’, may be a worthwhile first step.  If your anxiety is a little stronger, proper breathing will support and complement any other therapy that may be required.


The Breathing Book, Donna Farhi, Owl Books, Henry Holt & Co.