Best Exercises for Anxiety

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on December 10, 2022
4 min read

Anxiety is stressful. In many cases, the stressful nature of anxiety can actually make the anxiety itself worse, resulting in a negative feedback loop. This is especially true for people who experience “breathlessness,” or trouble catching their breath during anxiety attacks.

Learning to control your breathing during periods of high anxiety can help you control your anxiety more effectively. Deep breathing and other breathing techniques have been shown in multiple studies to help reduce anxiety, stress, and negative emotions in a wide variety of patients. By adding deep breathing exercises to your daily routine, you may be able to reduce your anxiety symptoms easily and quickly.

Breathing exercises help you focus on a major cause of many physical symptoms of anxiety: your breath. People with anxiety tend to breathe high in their chest, resulting in shallow, “panting” breaths. This can lead to hyperventilation, which includes symptoms like breathlessness, light-headedness, and an inability to think straight. Controlling your breathing can minimize these symptoms and help you reduce both mental and physical anxiety symptoms. 

Deep or Belly Breathing

Deep breathing is the process of filling your lungs fully, helping to slow your breathing and prevent hyperventilation.

Step 1: On a comfortable surface, sit or lay down.

Step 2: Place one hand on your ribs and one on your stomach, just below your ribs. 

Step 3: Breathe in slowly through your nose and focus on filling the deepest parts of your lungs. Pay attention to your hands; the hand on your stomach should be moving, but not the hand on your chest. 

Step 4: Breathe out through your mouth, with your lips in a tight circle. Exhale all of your air.

You can repeat this exercise three to ten times in one sitting. Don’t try to rush through it; the goal is to focus on your breathing and slow it down.

Calming Breathing

Focusing on even, regular breathing can help just as much as deep breathing. This exercise is a helpful way to calm yourself if you feel significant anxiety or you suspect you may be about to have a panic attack.

Step 1: Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable where you are fully supported, such as a bed or an armchair. If you are wearing tight clothing that makes it hard to breathe, loosen those items.

Step 2: Place your feet roughly hip-width apart, such as on the floor spread out or with your knees bent on the bed. 

Step 3: Keep your arms away from your sides, such as on the arms of a chair.

Step 4: Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose for a count of five. If you can’t reach a count of five, count as high as you comfortably can.

Step 5: Without stopping or holding your breath, immediately start breathing out through your mouth for a count of five. 

Repeat this for up to five minutes.

4-7-8 Breathing

Counting can give you something to focus on outside of your anxious thoughts. If you notice that you are breathing too quickly, you can use 4-7-8 breathing to slow down and reverse hyperventilation.

Step 1: While sitting or lying down comfortably, place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. 

Step 2: Breathe in deeply through your nose, expanding your stomach, for a count of four.

Step 3: Hold your breath for a count of seven.

Step 4: Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight, focusing on completely emptying your lungs. 

You can repeat this several times until you feel calm.

Roll Breathing

If you are having trouble accessing the deeper parts of your lungs, roll breathing can help you find this space and calm down.

Step 1: Lie flat on a comfortable surface. Bend your knees so you can place your feet flat, and put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.

Step 2: Breathe into your lower lungs, so the hand on your stomach moves but the hand on your chest does not.

Step 3: Continue breathing in so that your chest also expands, raising your other hand as well.

Step 4: Breathe out, letting both hands fall.

Repeat this process several times, or until you feel calm. 

Breathing too quickly can cause you to hyperventilate, no matter how deeply or shallowly you are breathing. Breathing exercises should be slow to help prevent hyperventilation. 

It’s also possible to strain muscles around your lungs by breathing too deeply. Breathing should be comfortable; if you notice an uncomfortable stretch while breathing, avoid breathing that deeply.