Counseling Center

Deep Breathing and Relaxation

One of the most effective coping strategies you can use for anxiety symptoms (particularly the physical ones) is to use deep breathing and relaxation techniques

Remember how we talked about the fight, flight, or freeze response?  This response activates your sympathetic nervous system. It sends oxygen to your arms and legs so that you are prepared to fight or flee. However, less oxygen is sent to our thinking brain in our prefrontal cortex which makes it difficult to think clearly. Deep breathing and relaxation activate the other part of your nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which sends a signal to your brain to tell the anxious part that you’re safe and don’t need to use the fight, flight, or freeze response. Deep breathing gets more oxygen to the thinking brain. Also, by addressing the physical, fight, flight and freeze symptoms directly, you are freeing up mental energy to address other symptoms.

Before you practice the deep breathing, take a moment to check in on your anxiety level. This is like taking a thermometer reading of anxiety. You are going to rate your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being very low to non-existent and 10 being the most severe anxiety you’ve ever experienced. Jot down what your number is right now.

Okay. So, let’s learn this new skill of deep breathing.

Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. You want to feel the hand on your stomach move in and out more than the hand on your chest. You will take a deep breath in through your nose. As you inhale count in your mind 1…2…3…4 and imagine using the air you breathe in to push against your hand on your stomach. Hold for a count of 2. Then exhale through your mouth like you are blowing out a candle. Exhale for a count of 1…2…3…4 and pause before starting again.

Watch the video below for an example of this technique:

When you’re finished, take a new thermometer reading. Rate your current level of anxiety on the scale from 1 (very low to none) to 10 (most severe). Did you notice a shift in your numbers?

We encourage you to keep practicing this simple yet powerful tool. This is something you can continue to practice anywhere since it is quiet and we always need to breathe.


Last Updated: 1/14/21