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How To Calm Anxiety: A Simple Breathing Exercise

Adapted from the video, “How To Calm Anxiety: A Simple Breathing Exercise.” Pat Altenburg, PhD, is a licensed medical health counselor and a licensed professional counselor in Columbia, Missouri. 

Feeling lonely? Confused? Anxious? Uneasy? You’re not alone. In fact, in a recent study, 62% of all adults surveyed reported experiencing some degree of anxiety. Data also shows that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation, as the number of anxiety-related Google searches skyrocketed in 2020. 

If you’re wondering how to calm your own feelings of anxiety, this simple breathing exercise could be one helpful option. This technique, referred to as “I AM Breathing,” is designed to help you ground and center yourself, while being more aware of the Holy Spirit within you. 

This breathing exercise gets its name from three important factors: 

I = Inside

  • Going “inside yourself” 

A = Aware

  • Becoming aware of the physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings you’re having 

M = Mindful

  • Being mindful of what you’re seeing and experiencing without making any judgments 

It’s Science: Why Breathing Exercises Really Do Calm Anxiety

Taking deep and deliberate breaths from your belly calms your nervous system by directly stimulating your Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system which oversees crucial bodily functions including mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. 

When stimulated, the Vagus nerve sends a message to your body that it is time to relax and destress. Over time, this improvement in “Vagal tone” can lead to the following, long-term benefits: 

  • A better mood 
  • Increased cognitive function 
  • An overall more resilient body 
  • Improved feelings of wellbeing 
  • Decreased risk/effects of anxiety and depression

“I AM Breathing:” A Simple Breathing Exercise to Calm Anxiety

Keep in mind: the primary principle of breathwork is that healing comes from within. And, in turn, it enables you to feel personally empowered. Let’s get started. 

Be sure to screenshot or bookmark this exercise and return to it any time you’re feeling anxious or just “off-center.” You can also watch Pat guide you through this exercise in the video below.

1. Close your eyes or leave your eyes open, but soften your gaze.

Tip: Follow along to the video below if you would like to keep your eyes closed for the full exercise. 

2. Take in a long, deep breath: in through your nose and out through your mouth. 

Tip: Visualize your breath filling up the lower part of your lungs just above your belly button. 

3. Repeat step 2 two more times. Each time, hold your breath a little longer before you exhale. 

4. Allow yourself to just “be” and notice:

  • Your heart beating
  • Anything that’s around you (Even if it’s noisy, simply notice these things without judgment.) 
  • How your body feels overall 

5. Take another deep breath and feel where the center of your body is. 

Tip: Try to focus on the area right by your heart. As you do, pay attention to what your breathing is like right now. Rapid, slow, calm? Just notice. 

6. Begin to slow your breathing down even more, repeating step 2 a few times. 

7. Become aware of the feeling surrounding your body right now: a warm, white light. 

Tip: This white, soft glow is your recognition of God’s presence surrounding your body.

8. Now imagine this warm, white light melting over your upper body: 

  • Feel it starting about an inch from the top of your head. 
  • It’s dropping down until it’s touching the top of your head.
  • Feel it melting slowly over your face, your ears, and the back of your head. 
  • Feel it moving like warm wax down your neck and over your shoulders. 
  • Feel it going down your arms, through your elbows, and down to your forearms. 
  • Feel it melting over your hands and into each one of your fingers. (Your fingers may even feel a little tingly.) 

9. Bring your attention back up to your chest with another deep breath. 

Tip: Notice what relaxation feels like for you. It’s different for everyone. 

10. Now imagine the warm, white light in the center of your body. 

  • Feel it inside of your chest. 
  • It’s dropping down into your stomach and filling up your belly with a warm, comfortable feeling. 
  • Feel it melting over your shoulder blades and your upper back where you hold so much tension. 
  • Let this warmth soak here as you continue to breathe deeply. In and out. 

11. Allow this warm, white light to melt down into your lower body. 

  • Feel it moving all the way down your back to your waist. 
  • Feel it dropping down into your hips. 
  • Feel it moving down to the tops of your thighs and into your knees. 
  • Feel it going into each of your shins and your calves. 
  • Feel the warmth go into your right foot. Now your left foot. 
  • Feel it moving down into each one of your toes. 

Tip: As you notice this warmth, allow yourself to feel it heating up in your feet. Feel the fact that your feet are actually becoming a little warmer. Feel the control that you have. 

12. Bring this feeling back up into the center of your chest and notice if there are any thoughts bothering you. If you have one: 

  • Imagine that you’re putting this thought on a leaf.
  • Set it down in the middle of a stream.
  • Let that thought float away on the leaf. 
  • Repeat this for each thought or problem that’s bothering you. 
  • Notice how much more open and relaxed your center feels now. 
  • Cement this feeling by breathing in and out again. 

13. Now place your hands in the center of your chest and feel the power that is inside of you. 

Tip: Feel the Holy Spirit within you, giving you the power that you need, even in times of stress. Know that all you have to do is just breathe and be mindful as you allow yourself just to be. 

14. Now fully return back into the room:

  • Open your eyes and be fully awake and alert. 
  • Take another deep breath, but this time, a faster one. 
  • Look around the room and say out loud five things that you see. (Doing so brings your prefrontal cortex back “online,” getting you ready to move forward even stronger than you were before this exercise.) 

Remember: You can always return to this skill whenever you need to. Any time that you feel as though you’re straying from comfort, simply start by breathing. These deep breaths will always be with you. 

Looking for other ways to slow down and focus throughout your week? Listen to A Bigger Life for further guidance as you meditate on Scripture.