Jaime Castillo, LCSW
Managing Anxiety Using your Breath
Updated: May 9
If you’re a living human being with emotions, you have probably been told to “take a deep breath” before. I have been on the receiving end of this comment, and I know that depending on the tone it can come across as less than supportive. While it may not always be helpful to be told to take a deep breath (who likes to be told what to do?), regulating your breathing could be one of the most useful tools you can use to manage painful emotions. Let me explain…
Many times, we have thoughts which drive our emotions which drive our behavior. For example, we might have the thought “I did something wrong” which produces guilt which causes us to apologize to someone. Other times, it works in the opposite direction and our behavior creates our emotions. For example, if I act like a confident person would in a job interview, it might create the emotion of confidence. This phenomenon is what’s behind the good ol’ phrase “Fake it til you make it.”
If behaviors can create feelings, and breathing is a behavior, the way we breathe has the power to influence our emotions, yes? Get this: I could be on a beach in Tahiti listening to the ocean waves with cucumbers on my eyes feeling completely Zen, but if I start to breathe like a person who is feeling anxious would, it will create anxiety. It’s as if my brain says, “Oh crap, we are breathing like we’re anxious so there must be some threat nearby” and then produces the emotion anxiety, even in the absence of any real anxiety-producing stimulus.
Since I’ve never known anyone to want to create anxiety in their lives, let’s shift gears and talk about how manipulating our breathing can work to our advantage. Taking a deep breath has a biological effect – it activates our parasympathetic nervous system which oversees regulating our emotions. So, even if we are feeling anxious and we have every right to be anxious based on what’s going on in our lives, taking a deep breath will signal to our brains that everything is OK for the moment, and can in turn reduce the intensity of our emotion. This is not just true for anxiety but also anger, fear, sadness, or any other unpleasant emotion we may be experiencing. The practice of deep breathing is especially empowering because we always have the opportunity to breathe no matter where we are, what we’re doing, or how intense our emotions are.
A good guideline to use for deep breathing is the 5-2-7 method, which suggests breathing in for the count of 5, holding for 2, and breathing out for the count of 7. Ideally, you want your exhalation to be longer than your inhalation and you want to pause for a few seconds in between your inhale and exhale. While 5-2-7 is a general guideline, these numbers can be modified to fit your comfort level and lung capacity.
Now that you’re (hopefully) on board with the benefits of deep breathing, the next time somebody tells you to “take a deep breath,” you might respond by saying you’re not usually into unsolicited advice, but the power of breathing is real!