woman practicing deep breathing and meditation on bed
Sleep Tips

Breathing Hacks to Calm Anxiety and Improve Sleep

It's no surprise that the COVID pandemic is setting off a wave of anxiety. A recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that almost half of Americans (48%) are worried about catching coronavirus, while 40% are nervous about becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID. Even more (62%) are feeling anxious about the possibility of family and loved ones falling ill from coronavirus.

It's not just concerns over physical health that have people on edge. More than one-third of Americans (36%) say coronavirus is negatively impacting their mental health, and a majority of adults (57%) worry that the coronavirus pandemic will negatively affect their finances.

All this anxiety can make it harder to get a good night's sleep. Fortunately, how you breathe during the day—and right before you go to sleep—can make a huge difference for your anxiety level and your ability to get enough shut-eye.

Here's what you need to know.

Breathe through your nose, not through your mouth

If you want to decrease stress, calm anxiety, improve sleep, and ease sleep apnea, there is a simple trick that may help you reach that goal: breathing through your nose, not through your mouth. That's according James Nestor, long-time science writer and author of the new book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

And he should know. Not only has Nestor been covering the breath beat for years, he also participated in an experiment to block his nose for 10 days to see just what impact consistent mouth breathing would have.

“I went from snoring a couple minutes a night to, within three days, snoring for hours a night," Nestor said in a radio interview. “I developed sleep apnea. My stress levels were off the charts. My nervous system was a mess … I felt awful. I felt fatigued."

While his experience is highly unusual, his observations aren't all that surprising. Mouth breathing during sleep is a potential cause of snoring and obstructive sleep apnea—both of which can disturb your sleep and leave you feeling lethargic during the day.

The good news is that all of Nestor's problems resolved themselves once he removed the nose plugs and started breathing through his nose again.

Fortunately, you don't have to go through such great lengths to start paying attention to your unconscious breathing patterns during the day. Simply pause periodically throughout the day to notice what your body is naturally doing—and then consciously correct any mouth breathing you observe. Regular breathing exercises (see below) can also provide good practice.

If you have a sleep partner, ask them to observe what you do at night. Are you sleeping with your mouth open? That's a pretty good sign that you're a mouth breather. If you're a nighttime mouth breather, ask your doctor what you can do break this habit. Nighttime mouth breathing has different causes (including nasal congestion, habit, and anatomical issues)—and the solution will depend on the actual problem.

Proper breathing manages anxiety

When you're a kid—or even a stressed out adult—people may tell you to "slow down and take a few deep breaths."

This isn't just a great trick for gaining some distance from whatever it is that's upsetting you. It also may be literally helping the body to return to a less-stressed state.

In an NPR interview, Nestor explained that people with anxiety tend to breathe too fast – and that fast breathing puts your body into a constant state of stress. When you breathe too fast, “you're stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. The way to change that is to breathe deeply … because breathing slowly is associated with a relaxation response."

Current research suggests that hijacking—and deliberately slowing down—the normally automatic act of breathing can help manage stress and anxiety. Just make sure to breathe through your nose!

Not only will you feel better immediately after, you may also find that decreasing your daytime stress and anxiety also helps you to get a better night's sleep.

Breathing practices for slow and balanced breathing

While there are countless breathing practices you can try, the basic principles are the same, says Nestor: Slow down your inhales and exhales, and pay attention to how your breathing is affecting your state of mind and your physical well-being.

When you breathe slowly and deeply, Nestor explains, “the diaphragm lowers, you're allowing more air into your lungs, and your body immediately switches to a relaxed state."

One very simple exercise you can try during the day is this: Take long, slow deep breaths where the inhale and exhale last the same amount of time. Aim for five to six seconds for the inhale and then five to six seconds for the exhale. If you're normally a fast, shallow breather, it may take some time and practice to get there.

Deepen your exhales for relaxation

While matching your exhale to your inhale is a great way to maintain equilibrium during the day, Nestor recommends lengthening the exhale right before bed. Exhaling helps quiet the nervous system because it activates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response, while inhaling activates the sympathetic (fight or flight) response. By overemphasizing rest and digest, you help your body transition into a state of calm relaxation—and hopefully, a good night's sleep.

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