The number one most important thing to do when experiencing anxiety is mindful breathing. When we are in the “fight or flight” mode, our sympathetic nervous system is turned on. We need instead to regulate the body’s arousal into the “rest and digest” mode, which is called the parasympathetic nervous system.
Deliberate calm breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and will send a signal to begin calming down the body. 75% of this signal is transmitted from the body and going to the brain. That’s why it is far more important to calm the physiological symptoms of anxiety than it is to try to calm psychological symptoms in the moment of intense anxiety.
The technique that I recommend doing is alternative nostril breathing. The great part about deep, slow breathing exercises is that you don’t have to believe in it working or helping. It works in calming down the body whether you want it to or not.
How to practice it
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your back upright and shoulders relaxed or sit on the ground with a cushion under you and your legs crossed.
- Rest your right hand on your right knee.
- Bring your left hand up by your nose.
- Position your left hand into the Shaka Sign (also known as the “hang loose” sign). To do this, have your hand open and your fingers spread out. Now, fold your pointer, middle and ring finger into your palm.
- Exhale completely, then use your left thumb to close your left nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your right nostril until you get a deep inhale, then close the right nostril with your pinky finger.
- Open the left nostril and exhale through the left nostril until you get a deep exhale.
- Inhale through the left nostril until you get a deep inhale, then close the left nostril.
- Open the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril until you get a deep exhale.
- Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes.
- Complete the practice on an exhale and take a deep inhale through both nostrils.
Make sure that you are inhaling and exhaling the same amount of time for both nostrils when doing the exercise.
For your first time, I recommend setting a timer for 2 minutes to practice it. Very rarely, some people feel a slight increase in anxiety when starting out. This IS NOT a sign that it isn’t working or that something is wrong. It is usually a sign a sign that old anxiety is being released, anxiety that is already present is just more visible, or there is a worry about anxiety related to the exercise, all of which are absolutely okay.
The exercise will work best with commitment and consistency. It is very important to do the exercise every day for at least 5 minutes. I recommend doing it once in the early afternoon and once right before bed. It is also important to do alternative nostril breathing not only when you are feeling anxious, but also when you are already calm.
If you are feeling very intense anxiety, you can boost the results of the exercise by splashing very cold water onto your face. The face has a lot of receptors, and cold water also stimulates the vagus nerve.