Anxiety is our distrust of the future. It starts with us thinking or perceiving that things are not going to turn out the way we would like them to. The feeling of powerlessness can lead to physical reactions like a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and dry mouth. The good news? We can use pranayama for anxiety relief.
The practice of controlling the breath in yoga is called pranayama. It comes from two Sanskrit words – ‘prana’ meaning life force, and ‘ayama’ means regulating or controlling. Pranayama is one of the limbs in the eight-fold path of yoga, which goes on to prove the importance that yoga lays on using the breath.
Medical science is recognizing the healing powers of pranayama for anxiety. This study talks about how pranayama can have a significant positive effect on test anxiety and test performance in students. Another study found pranayama to ‘significantly decrease states of anxiety and negative affect and that these changes are associated with the modulation of activity and connectivity in brain areas involved in emotion processing, attention, and awareness’.
In this article, we talk about the effect of emotions on our breath, how our brains respond to stress and anxiety, and some pranayama techniques for finding relief from anxiety.
The Effect of Emotions on The Breath and Vice Versa
A simple way to test the effect that emotions have on our breathing is to notice the breath while going through a difficult emotion. The next time you feel stressed, anxious, or angry, try observing your breath. Notice how it feels. You will notice that in all likelihood your breath will be short, fast, and shallow.
On the contrary, when you are rested, feeling relaxed, and calm, and you notice your breath at that time, you will find your breath to be long, slow, and deep.
If we reverse this phenomenon, we can regulate the breath so it can positively affect our emotions. During periods of stress and anxiety, consciously working on the breath by taking full deep breaths can significantly create the short-term benefits of feeling more grounded and calm.
This happens because deep breathing sends signals to the brain that all is good and that it can relax, calm the nervous system, and deactivate the stress response.
Over time, deep controlled breathing has long-term effects of reducing chronic stress and anxiety disorders.
Use pranayama to regain control of the mind when you feel anxiety kicking in.
How Our Brains Respond to Anxiety
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates the body’s involuntary processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, digestion, etc. It has two divisions – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which is the body’s fight or flight response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which regulates the body’s relaxation response.
In situations of perceived danger, the SNS goes into action. Adrenaline shoots up, blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, muscles become tense, and our breathing becomes short and shallow. The body and mind prepare themselves to fight or run.
When we are anxious, the body’s and the mind’s response is the same. The SNS does not differentiate between real and imaginary danger.
On the other hand, when the PNS becomes active, blood pressure and heart rate drop, muscles relax, and the breath becomes slower and deeper. Gradually, the body and the mind both come to rest.
Since the SNS and PNS cannot function together, only one is active at one time, pranayama helps to activate the PNS and over time, also strengthens the PNS.
4 Pranayama Techniques for Anxiety Relief
Using pranayama for anxiety has both immediate and long-term benefits. Even a short practice relaxes the nervous system, calms the mind, and improves mood. With regular practice, the mind learns to stay calm longer and the frequency and intensity of anxiety can reduce.
Some important things to keep in mind while practicing pranayama for anxiety are to practice on an empty stomach, preferably after some physical activity or gentle movement. Start slowly, without forcing the breath or straining it. Do only as much as feels comfortable and gradually increase the duration of your practice.
Practice pranayama in a controlled environment to safely understand how it affects you.
1. Lengthening the exhalation or 2:1 Breathing
Breathing out is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, when we exhale, it links to the body’s ability to calm down and relax.
When we breathe in and out too quickly, it can lead to lesser oxygen flowing into the brain. Especially during times of stress and anxiety, when we begin to breathe quick, short breaths, it further reduces the flow of oxygen into the brain.
A counter to this is consciously prolonging the exhalation.
In 2:1 breathing, exhalations are twice as long as inhalations. Even as many as 2 – 4 minutes can have an immediate calming effect on the mind.
Start with exhaling out completely. Now breathe in naturally and again exhale out all the air from your lungs.
After a couple times, let the inhalation happen naturally and try and make your exhalation double the length of your inhalation. So, for instance, if you are inhaling to the count of 3, exhale to the count of 6.
Try practicing this breathing for 2 – 5 minutes. You can do this as many times as you need to in a day.
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Also known as abdominal breathing or belly breathing, this is a very effective breathing technique to make it easy for the body to breathe fully.
It is restful for the body, calms the nervous system, and eases any mental disturbances.
You can practice diaphragmatic breathing either lying down in corpse pose (also known as relaxation pose) or sitting comfortably but with your spine erect on a chair with both your feet placed firmly on the floor.
If you are new to diaphragmatic breathing, you can place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
Take a deep breath in right into your abdomen and feel your belly rising. Soften your rib cage. Your breathing should feel effortless.
There should be no movement in the hand on your chest. Pause for a moment and exhale out from your belly. Feel your belly falling back down as you breathe out.
Observe yourself breathing until you feel that your breath has settled down. You can practice diaphragmatic breathing for 2 – 5 minutes.
Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing provides a full breathing feeling.
3. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is an excellent practice for reducing stress and anxiety and also the quickest way to achieve a calmer state of mind. Alternate nostril breathing helps to restore the balance between the right and left sides of our energy pathways by clearing any blockages of energy.
To practice, come into a comfortable seated position. Elongate your spine so that you are sitting erect with your hands on your knees or lap and palms facing down. Your eyes are either fixed at a point ahead or if comfortable, closed.
Use the thumb and ring finger of your right hand for opening and closing the nostrils.
Start by closing your left nostril with your ring finger and inhaling with the right nostril. Now close your right nostril with your thumb, release your left nostril and exhale from your left nostril. Inhale from your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your ring finger; release your right nostril to exhale.
Repeat the process by starting inhalation from the left nostril. This completes one round.
You can practice up to 10 rounds.
4. Humming Bee Breathing
Known as Bhramari Pranayama, this is an effective breathing technique for instantly calming the mind. It helps in freeing the mind of agitation, anxiety, or stress, and even getting rid of anger.
This breathing technique is called so because, on exhalation, it resembles the humming sound made by a bee.
Bhramari Pranayama helps to calm and soothe the nerves, especially around the brain and forehead. The humming sound vibrations also have a calming effect on the mind.
To practice, sit with your eyes closed in a comfortable seated position. Gently place your index fingers on your ears, on the cartilage between your cheek and ear. Take a deep breath in, and begin to exhale slowly, making a low-pitched ‘hmmm’ sound, like the humming of a bee. Keep your focus on making the sound smooth and steady.
You can begin with seven repetitions and slowly work your way up to seventeen.
Once you finish, spend some time sitting with your eyes closed and simply observing the effects of this pranayama on how you feel.
Use the humming bee technique to calm you down if you feel stressed.
Practicing these simple techniques of pranayama for anxiety can go a long way in restoring a sense of well-being and calmness. Focusing on the breath and becoming aware of it creates a feeling of being in control and counteracts the powerlessness that one feels because of anxiety.
Taking out even five minutes for self-care when experiencing anxiety can help you come to the present and stay in it. It can help us manage our emotions and conserve our energies. The key is to establish a daily, regular practice.
Looking for other yogic techniques to deal with anxiety? Here is a great video from The Yoga Institute.
Nidhi @thebigbindu is a practicing yoga therapist and an advanced yoga teacher. Her writing is inspired by her experience of yoga and her study of Ayurveda, Yoga philosophy, and Yoga psychology.