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  • Writer's pictureVidhya SK

Breathing your anxiety away: How and why it works

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

The rise of anxiety in young people

Anxiety refers to feelings of uneasiness and worry, which can range from mild to extreme. Many people experience anxiety at some point in their life, whether it is before a big life event or a job interview (1) . It is no surprise that anxiety is becoming increasingly common amongst young people. A recent large study by Parodi and team investigating trends in anxiety amongst young people aged 14 to 18 years old in Wisconsin (2). This representative sample included young people of diverse races and sexuality, suggesting the research can be generalisable across other populations. The researchers found that the youth meeting the criteria for anxiety in their anxiety screening questionnaire was 34.1% in 2012 to 44% in 2018. This indicates approximately a 10% increase in 6 years. Apart from this study, other studies located in areas in the US, Canada (3), and Europe (4) have found that anxiety seems to be increasing in youth as the years go on. In line with the increasing rates of anxiety with time, generalised anxiety disorder is currently the most common mental illness in adolescents (5). With anxiety being so common in young people, it is imperative to encourage a variety of treatment methods to help the quality of life in young people.

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are often recommended by psychological practitioners and are endorsed by the NHS(6) and Mind(7) to manage stress and anxiety. Breathing exercises aim to promote deep breathing. One example of a breathing exercise is 4-7-8 breathing (8) . This involves a series of steps:

1) Place one hand on your belly

2)Breathe deeply through your belly for 4 seconds. You should feel it expanding.

3)Hold your breath for 7 seconds, as you count this in your head

4)Exhale the air from your lungs slowly, for 8 seconds.

5) Repeat as needed.

Do they work?

Breathing exercises have been studied scientifically to determine if they actually work in calming an anxious person down. For example, Hamdani and team (9) published a large review of 65 research papers to identify the effectiveness of relaxation techniques (including breathing exercises) to reduce anxiety symptoms in young people aged 11- 18. They found that these techniques were effective in reducing anxiety symptoms in young people. More specifically, other research papers have also shown a reduction in anxiety symptoms surrounding test anxiety in university students and secondary school when they practiced breathing exercises, in Korea (10) and India (11) respectively.

The science behind breathing exercises

How do breathing exercises actually work? Zaccaro and team (12) released a research review to explain the gritty science behind breath control! In short, slow breathing techniques promote a range of changes in your nervous systems that regulate a number of physiological processes (Think heart rate, blood pressure and respiration etc). It mainly increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV) , which is a term meaning a shift in timing between heartbeats. At rest, an increased HRV means the body has a strong ability to tolerate stresses. In addition to affect the HRV, breath control was also associated with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and hypothalamus, which are regions in the brain that can be responsible for emotion regulation. Put together, breath control seems to trigger mechanisms in the body that regulate internal bodily states, helping you calm down. Another research study has shown that different emotions can trigger different breathing patterns naturally(13). The team found that when joyous, participants breathing was deep, slow and regular. On the other hand, when participants were anxious, breathing was fast and shallow. Hence, with these research studies in mind, it seems to make sense that controlling your breathing can control anxiety!

Understanding the research behind anxiety and breathing can be useful to help young people manage their anxiety. There are many proven breathing exercises that can help, as recommended by Mind and the NHS. Why not try one for yourself and see if you feel calmer!



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