To learn to relax, you’ll need to force yourself to develop new habits, such as the way you breathe. Because one of the most common symptoms of panic is shortness of breath, you’ll want to learn to breathe differently.

Whenever you feel anxious, stop and note your breathing, then slow it down. Breathing deeply, especially with a longer exhalation, will help you relax. You can shift from the fight-or-flight response (activated by your sympathetic nervous system) to the relaxation response (activated by your parasympathetic nervous system) by using the following methods.

Hold your breath for 10 to 15 seconds. This temporarily prevents the dissipation of carbon dioxide.

Breathe in and out of a paper bag. You will re-inhale the carbon dioxide in the bag and restore the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream.

Exercise vigorously when you’re anxious. This increases your metabolism and produces more energy. The inhaled oxygen is used up by the process of metabolism, and a larger quantity of carbon dioxide will be produced.

Practice deep abdominal breathing, which allows your lungs to fill to capacity. This slows your body down.

Breathing Exercises

You can learn three different breathing exercises. Learning these will enable you to practice breathing, no matter how little time you have. Each of the following techniques can fit into available windows of time.

When you breathe too fast, the muscles in your abdomen tighten up, and your chest cavity becomes constricted. You want to reverse this by learning to breathe using a method that overemphasizes your diaphragm. This will help you remember how to breathe deeply. As you breathe abdominally, your belly rises when you inhale and drops when you exhale.

This is because the diaphragm, the large dome-shaped muscle under your rib cage, expands and contracts. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and pulls down, as your abdominal muscles relax. This allows your lower lungs to expand, so that you can breathe deeply. When you exhale, your diaphragm moves back up, and your abdominal muscles contract.

Breathing Exercise 1

  1. Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or bed. Put a pillow under your head and two pillows on your belly. This position allows you to watch the pillows rise as you use your diaphragm muscles to breathe. While inhaling, breathe through your nose.
  2. Now, take a deep breath and watch the pillows rise. While exhaling, watch the pillows go down.
  3. While continuing to lie on your back, set aside the pillows and put your hand on your belly. Use the breathing techniques in step 1 and notice your hand rising and falling with every inhalation and every exhalation.
  4. Still lying on your back, place your arms at your side and follow the same breathing method. Notice your belly rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation.
  5. Now, sit on an easy chair or a sofa and watch your belly rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation.
  6. Sit up straight, in an upright chair, and repeat this breathing method. Make sure that your shoulders and chest are still.
  7. Finally, stand up and repeat the exercise.

Set aside 15 to 20 minutes to practice Exercise 1 at least once a day. It’s best if you practice this exercise in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Try to clear your mind of the day’s concerns and consider it a break.

You won’t be able to practice Exercise 1 on the spur of the moment. However, you will be able to practice an abbreviated version of it.

Breathing Exercise 2

The next exercise can be practiced sitting down and requires only a few minutes.

  1. Find a comfortable sitting position.
  2. Put both feet on the floor with your arms at your sides.
  3. Breathing in, fill your lungs with more air than you usually do.
  4. Wait a moment before you exhale.
  5. Slowly exhale more air than you think you can.
  6. Inhale again and watch your belly rise.
  7. Hold for a moment.
  8. Exhale slowly.
  9. Repeat this several times.

Breathing Exercise 3

Use this exercise to monitor your breathing throughout the day and reestablish a calming
breathing pattern.

  1. Breathe through your nose.
  2. Slow your breathing to eight to twelve breaths per minute. The slower the better.
  3. Exhale more slowly than you inhale.
  4. After breathing out, hold a moment before taking your next breath.

Try any one of these abdominal breathing exercises the next time you feel anxious. Notice how
some of your anxiety drifts away. Practice breathing on a regular basis, and do it often, so that
it becomes your habitual way of breathing. Try to stop what you are doing every hour and slow
down your breathing by breathing abdominally for at least 30 seconds.

By repeatedly stimulating the vagus nerve during those long exhalations, slow breathing may shift the nervous system towards that more restful state, resulting in positive changes like a lower heart rate and lower blood pressure.