Breathing Exercises for Natural Anxiety Relief, Pain Control and More

Most of the time you don’t have to wor­ry about breath­ing – it will hap­pen by itself. But some­times you can give your­self a men­tal or phys­i­cal boost by pay­ing atten­tion to this most basic of body func­tions.

Breath­ing exer­cis­es can be used for relax­ation, relief of anx­i­ety, pain con­trol, and improved self-aware­ness.

Here are a few of my favorite breath­ing exer­cis­es, along with a few point­ers about how to get the most from them.


Most peo­ple have it back­wards. Deep breath­ing is gen­er­al­ly believed to be a good thing, but nine times out of ten if I ask a patient to “breathe deeply,” they ini­ti­ate a pro­longed inhale. Instead, empha­size the exhale.

Some of the many rea­sons to focus on breath­ing out instead of in:

  • Phys­i­o­log­i­cal – you get more bang for your buck gas-exchange-wise if you purge a few more mil­li­liters of dead air that’s sit­ting in the deep­est recess­es of your lungs.
  • Mus­cu­lar – you engage your abdom­i­nal core and sta­bi­lize your pos­ture when you breathe out.
  • Psy­cho­log­i­cal – anx­i­ety is accom­pa­nied by hold­ing the lungs in an over-inflat­ed state. (Try it your­self – take a sharp breath in and hold it. Anx­i­ety kicks in auto­mat­i­cal­ly.) I’ve rarely met a per­son who need­ed extra help to be anx­ious.

Try this exer­cise: With each breath, pro­long the dura­tion of the exhale. When you feel you’ve reached the end of your out-breath, allow your­self to gen­tly con­tin­ue breath­ing out for a few extra sec­onds.

Even if you feel you have noth­ing left to exhale, it’s okay to just pause the breath and allow a sec­ond or two to float by before ini­ti­at­ing the next inhale.

Breathe Into Your Eyelids

Remem­ber the scene in the movie Bull Durham when they teach the pitch­ing phe­nom to breathe through his eye­lids?

It’s clear­ly non­sen­si­cal (though it does divert his thoughts from the stress of pitch­ing so he won’t over-think his per­for­mance).

But, legit­i­mate­ly, you can use your breath to expand any area of the body, bring­ing more aware­ness and relax­ation to it. Try this exer­cise for the low back:

With each inhale, pic­ture the air flow­ing into the low back, mak­ing it wider and more relaxed. You can even place your hand on your low back, so that when you breathe in you can feel the low back expand­ing.

Lit­er­al­ly, the air does not flow into your low back. The only place air goes when you breathe is your lungs. But when your lungs fill with air, they press out against all their neigh­bor­ing organs and the trunk as a whole has to respond.

Here is where you have a choice.

Your trunk is a three-dimen­sion­al object with a front, back, sides, top and bot­tom. Depend­ing on your aware­ness, pos­ture, and mus­cle con­trol, you can choose the way that your trunk responds when you breathe in.

You can choose to accom­mo­date by expand­ing in the low back. Or into the pelvic floor. Or the breast bone. Or any com­bi­na­tion of these.

The only thing you can’t choose is to be total­ly rigid.

With a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion, you can use this tech­nique to relax and relieve pain in any body part. If you have a wrist prob­lem, for instance, it’s easy to pic­ture your trunk expand­ing as you breathe, then it in turn press­ing out against its sur­round­ings. The chain of expan­sion, begin­ning with an inhale, can direct­ly (though sub­tly) spread down your arm and out to your wrist.

Just Pay Attention — Breath and Mental Health

Some­times life seems out of con­trol. Noth­ing is going the way you want it. One response to feel­ing that life is out of con­trol is anx­i­ety. Unless you’ve been sit­ting on a vel­vet cush­ion your whole life eat­ing bon­bons, you know about anx­i­ety.

Anoth­er response to feel­ing that life is out of con­trol is depres­sion. If you’re feel­ing that there’s noth­ing you can do that makes a dif­fer­ence, that’s pret­ty depress­ing.

But there’s one thing that’s always under your com­fort­able con­trol, and that’s your abil­i­ty to pay atten­tion to you breath.

Sim­ply pay atten­tion to the rise and fall of your breath. Don’t try to deep­en it or slow it down – just notice what it does on its own. Of course, your breath pat­tern will start to change auto­mat­i­cal­ly as soon as you begin to draw your atten­tion to it. But don’t try to breathe par­tic­u­lar­ly deeply or in any spe­cif­ic pat­tern.

Spend up to ten min­utes attend­ing to the rhythm of your breath. Unless you’re a triple black belt yog­ic med­i­ta­tion cham­pi­on, your mind will wan­der off from time to time. Many times. That’s okay. Gen­tly bring your aware­ness back to your breath and con­tin­ue to let it flow.


Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

The myth of deep breath­ing

Gain con­trol over anx­i­ety and depres­sion


About Aaron Bynen

Aaron is a health conscious individual living in the Pacific Northwest.

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