Simple breathing exercises to beat anxiety at work

Being at work can be stressful at the best of times.

But if you’re navigating a return to the office after a long time away, starting in a new role with more responsibility, or going through something difficult in your personal life, you might find your workplace anxiety is spiking.

Feeling anxious when you’re in the office or surrounded by colleagues can be horrible. There is often pressure to hide it, to push it down, to focus on the job.

But anxiety always has a way of making itself known, and can manifest as a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, irritability, sweatiness, an inability to concentrate, or even a panic attack.

In these moments we would love to retreat to a dark room. Maybe lie on the floor, or press our faces against the cold surface of a wall. But that behaviour probably isn’t going to fly in the office.

Instead, why not try some simple breathing exercises. You can do them in the toilets, or even at your desk.

Nevsah Karamehmet is a Vedic meditation teacher, a breath coach and founder of Breath Hub. He has shared his favourite breathing techniques to help you feel calm and in control at work:

Deep belly breathing

‘Also called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, deep belly breathing utilises the lower parts of the lungs and expands the belly as opposed to shallow chest breathing, which only utilizes the upper chest,’ says Nevsah.

He adds that it is an efficient and effective method used in many breathwork practices.

‘Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system in charge of the body’s relaxation response,’ he says.

‘Triggering the rest and digest response helps reduce the blood pressure, bring the heart rate down, lower the stress level and improve your mood. It is also an excellent tool to alleviate pain and decrease anxiety. Deep diaphragmatic breaths let the body know that everything is alright and invite peace and calm.’

To get the most out of this exercise, Nevsah suggests learning the technique lying down. Then, once you get the hang of it, you can do it sitting down or standing up, at your desk or on your commute – no one will know. 

To practice deep belly breathing:

  • Either lie down on your back with your knees bent (if you are new to breathwork) or sit up straight.
  • Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below the ribcage.
  • Inhale deeply through the nose and let the air fill toward your abdomen.  
  • Exhale slowly through the nose as you relax your abdomen.
  • The hand on your chest should be relatively stable as the hand on your belly rises and falls with each breath.

Keep breathing like this for five to ten minutes or until you feel calm and relaxed.

Box breathing

‘Box breathing, also known as square breathing, gets its name from the equal duration of inhaling, holding the breath, exhaling, and holding the breath again,’ says Nevsah.

‘This technique is famously used by U.S. Navy Seals to facilitate concentration in high-stress situations.’

He says box breathing is the ideal method to reduce stress and improve your mood.

‘It helps lower your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and reduce the stress chemicals in your body,’ he adds. ‘After a couple of minutes of practicing this method, you will feel rejuvenated. 

‘In box breathing, carbon dioxide builds up in the blood as you hold your breath, which facilitates the entry of oxygen into the cells.

‘It also stimulates the vagus nerve, which plays a significant role in the parasympathetic nervous system. A strong vagus response is critical to physical and mental health.’

To practice box breathing: 

  • Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
  • Slowly breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for four.
  • Breathe out through the nose for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for four.

‘You can visualize a four-by-four square as you practice this exercise. Your belly should rise as you inhale and relax as you exhale. Do not try to force the air out but simply release it.’ 

Once you get the hang of it, Nevsah suggests increasing the length of the breaths to five or six counts for deeper relaxation. He says the important point is to inhale, hold, exhale and hold for the same duration.

Coherent breathing

Coherent breathing is also know as resonance frequency breath. Nevsah says it is a relaxed diaphragmatic breathing technique at around five or six breaths per minute, which has a ‘regulating effect on the autonomic nervous system’.

‘Coherent breathing helps to find a balance between the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which gets us moving and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us,’ he adds.

This technique may help with anxiety and depression, improve heart rate variability, strengthen resilience, and increase the capacity to cope with stress.

To practice coherent breathing:

  • Be seated in a comfortable position and bring your attention to your breath.
  • Take a deep, diaphragmatic breath for a count of six.
  • Exhale for a count of six.

‘Continue for a couple of minutes and try to notice the change in your mood,’ suggests Nevsah.

‘A comfortable inhalation and exhalation duration differs from person to person. Some may prefer a 4-6, 5-5 or 5-7 cycle instead of 6-6.

‘Experiment with different counts and find one that fits you best.’

Alternate nostril breathing

‘Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breathing technique also known as Nadi Shodhana, which means “clearing the channels of circulation,”‘ says Nevsah.

‘You can practice this cleansing and balancing technique as part of a yoga or meditation practice or do it separately to calm your mind and reduce stress.

To practice alternate nostril breathing:

  • Place the tips of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand between the eyebrows.
  • Close your eyes, take a deep breath in and out through the nose to relax and concentrate.
  • Now, close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril.
  • Then, close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the right nostril, switch fingers and exhale through the left nostril.

‘The idea is to alternate nostrils after each inhalation and exhale through the other nostril. The practice should begin by inhaling through the left and end by exhaling through the left. You can repeat this exercise for five to ten cycles and see how you feel.’ 

Nevsah says the consistency is helpful in this practice, so try to match the duration of the inhales and exhales. You can do this by counting to five or another number you are comfortable with.

Bhramari pranayama (Bumblebee breathing)

‘Bhramari pranayama is a soothing and relaxing yogic breathing technique that takes its name from the black Indian bee,’ Nevsah explains.

‘Bumblebee breathing helps lower the blood pressure and heart rate, dissipate anger and reduce stress.

‘Due to the humming sound created in this technique, you may not be able to practice it at the office or during a meeting, but maybe someone will hear you hum on the bus, and you get to teach them an excellent stress-relieving method. 

To practice Bhramari pranayama:

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Slightly part your teeth but keep your mouth closed.
  • Gently close your ears with your thumbs- no need to insert your fingers deep into your ears. Spread your other fingers and rest them on the crown.
  • Breathe in deeply through the nose, and as you exhale, let out a low-pitched hum from the back of your throat. This should sound like the buzzing of a bee.
  • Try to make the sound as soft and smooth as you can. You will feel the vibration through your head.

‘Perform the technique ten times, and you will feel a shift of energy and a sense of peace and quiet within you.’

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