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Self-Help Information: Relaxation Breathing 

Your breathing directly reflects the level of tension you carry in your body. Under tension, your breathing usually becomes shallow and rapid, and occurs high in the chest. When relaxed, you breathe more fully, more deeply, and from your abdomen. It's difficult to be tense and to breathe from your abdomen at the same time.

The two exercises described below can help you change your breathing pattern. By practicing them, you can achieve a state of deep relaxation in a short period of time. Just three minutes of practicing abdominal breathing or the calming breath exercise will usually induce a deep state of relaxation.

Abdominal Breathing Exercise

Note the level of tension you're feeling. Then place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage.

Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into the "bottom" of your lungs - in other words, send the air as low down as you can. If you're breathing from your abdomen, your hand should actually rise. Your chest should move only slightly while your abdomen expands. (In abdominal breathing, the diaphragm - the muscle that separates the lung cavity form the abdominal cavity - moves downward. In so doing, it causes the muscles surrounding the abdominal cavity to push outward.)

When you've taken in a full breath, pause for a moment and then exhale slowly through your nose or mouth, depending on your preference. Be sure to exhale fully. As you exhale, allow your whole body to just let go (you might visualize your arms and legs going loose and limp like a rag doll).

Do ten slow, full abdominal breaths. Try to keep your breathing smooth and regular, without gulping in a big breath or letting your breath out all at once. It will help to slow down your breathing if you slowly count to four on the inhale (1-2-3-4) and then slowly count to four on the exhale. Remember to pause briefly at the end of each inhalation. Count from ten down to one, counting backwards one number with each exhalation. The process should go like this:

  • Slow inhale... pause...slow exhale (count "ten")
  • Slow inhale...pause...slow exhale (count "nine), etc.

If you start to feel light headed while practicing abdominal breathing, stop for 15-20 seconds, and then start again.

Extend the exercise if you wish by doing two or three "sets" of abdominal breaths, remembering to count backwards from ten to one for each set (each exhalation counts as one number). Five full minutes of abdominal breathing will have a pronounced effect in reducing anxiety or early symptoms of panic. Some people prefer to count from one to ten instead. Feel free to do this if it suits you.

Calming Breath Exercise

The calming breath exercise was adapted from the ancient discipline of yoga. It is a very efficient technique for achieving a deep state of relaxation quickly.

Breathing from your abdomen, inhale through your nose slowly to a count of five (count slowly "one...two...three...four...five" as you inhale).

Pause and hold your breath to a count of five.

Exhale slowly, through your nose or mouth, to a count of five (or more if it takes you longer). Be sure to exhale fully.

When you've exhaled completely, take two breaths in your normal rhythm, and then repeat steps 1 through 3 in the cycle above.

Keep up the exercise for at least three to five minutes. This should involve going through at least ten cycles of in-five, hold-five, and out-five. As you continue the exercise, you may notice that you can count higher when you exhale than when you inhale. Allow these variations in your counting to occur if they do, and just continue with the exercise for up to five minutes. Remember to take two normal breaths between each cycle. If you start to feel light-headed while practicing this exercise, stop for thirty seconds and then start again.

Throughout the exercise, keep your breathing smooth and regular, without gulping in breaths or breathing out suddenly.

Optional: Each time you exhale, you may wish to say "relax," "calm," let go," or any other relaxing word or phrase silently to yourself. Allow your whole body to let go as you do this. If you keep this up each time you practice, eventually just saying your relaxing word by itself will bring on a mild state of relaxation.


Practice the abdominal breathing or calming breath exercise for five minutes every day for at least two weeks. If possible, find a regular time each day to do this so that your breathing exercise becomes a habit. With practice, you can learn in a short period of time to "damp down" the physiological reactions underlying anxiety and panic.

Once you feel you've gained some mastery in the use of either technique, apply it when you feel stressed, anxious, or when you experience the onset of panic symptoms. By extending your practice of either breathing exercise to a month or longer, you will begin to retrain yourself to breathe from your abdomen. The more you can shift the center of your breathing from your chest to your abdomen, the more consistently you will feel relaxed on an ongoing basis.

(Adapted from: The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, Oakland, CA, 1995.)

Need Additional Help?

Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling for these and related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary Students ONLY). For more information or to schedule an appointment call or e-mail:

Anne LaFrance, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
(509) 335-4607
135A McCoy Hall

NOTE:  The information contained in these self help documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional care.  Neither the authors, Washington State University nor the College of Veterinary Medicine assume liability for injury incurred by following the information presented in these self-help documents
Last Edited: May 13, 2014 12:51 PM   

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