Healthy living

Calming techniques – breathing training

Everyone knows that breathing is an essential part of life, but did you know that breathing plays an essential role in anxiety?

This information discusses the role of breathing in anxiety and will guide you through a simple calming technique that uses breathing patterns to help you relax.

Breathing is a powerful determinant of your physical state. When our breathing rate becomes elevated, a number of physiological changes begin to occur.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself when you’ve had a fright; you might suddenly gasp, feel a little breathless and a little light-headed, as well as feeling some tingling sensations around your body.

Believe it or not, the way we breathe is a major factor in producing these sensations and other sensations that become noticeable when we are anxious.

Anxious breathing

You might already know that we breathe in oxygen – which is used by the body – and we breathe out carbon dioxide.

For the body to run efficiently, there needs to be a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, and this balance is maintained through how fast and how deeply we breathe.

Of course, our body needs different amounts of oxygen depending on our level of activity.

When we exercise, there is an increase in both oxygen and carbon dioxide; in relaxation there is a decrease in both oxygen and carbon dioxide. In both cases the balance is maintained.

When we are anxious, this balance is disrupted. Essentially, we take in more oxygen than the body needs – in other words we overbreathe, or hyperventilate.

When this imbalance is detected, the body responds with a number of chemical changes that produce symptoms such as:

  • dizziness
  • light-headedness
  • confusion
  • breathlessness
  • blurred vision
  • increased heart rate to pump more blood around
  • numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • cold clammy hands
  • muscle stiffness.

The normal rate of breathing is 10 to 12 breaths per minute – what’s your breathing rate?

The calming technique

While overbreathing and hyperventilation are not specifically dangerous – it’s even used in medical testing – continued overbreathing can leave you feeling exhausted or ‘on edge’.

This means you’re more likely to respond to stressful situations with intense anxiety and panic.

Gaining control over your breathing involves both slowing your rate of breathing and changing your breathing style.

Use the calming technique by following these steps and you’ll be on your way to developing a better breathing habit.

  1. Ensure that you are sitting on a comfortable chair or laying on a bed.
  2. Take a breath in for 4 seconds (through the nose if possible).
  3. Hold the breath for 2 seconds
  4. Release the breath taking 6 seconds (through the nose if possible), then pause slightly before breathing in again.
  5. Practise, practise, practise!

Breathing tips

When you first begin changing your breathing pattern, it may be difficult to slow your breathing down to this rate. You may wish to try using a 3-in, 1-hold, 4-out breathing rate to start off with.

When you are doing your breathing exercises, make sure that you are using a stomach breathing style rather than a chest breathing style. You can check this by placing 1 hand on your stomach and 1 hand on your chest. Your hand on your stomach should rise when you breathe in.

Try to practise at least once or twice a day at a time when you can relax, relatively free from distraction. This will help to develop a more relaxed breathing habit.

The key to progress really is practise, so try to set aside some time each day.

By using the calming technique, you can slow your breathing down and reduce your general level anxiety. With enough practise, it can even help to reduce your anxiety when you are in an anxious situation.

Where to get help

Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)

See your doctor

Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222

Mental Health Emergency Response Line (MHERL)

  • Metro callers: 1300 55 788
  • Peel: 1800 676 822


  • Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002


  • Breathing is a powerful indication of your physical state and wellbeing.
  • If you are anxious your breathing balance becomes disrupted.
  • Using the ‘calming technique’ will help to slow breathing down and reduce anxiety levels.

This information provided by

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Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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