I Tried Mindful Breathing for a Week And it Changed How I Feel About My Anxiety

updated Sep 27, 2019
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To say I’m an anxious person would be like saying Joanna Gaines has an affinity for shiplap. Usually, the anxiety manifests when I’m lying in bed trying to fall asleep on a random, otherwise uneventful night: After a full day when I haven’t had a chance to collect my thoughts, they finally catch up with me, and it almost always takes a physical toll.

It usually goes like this: I’ll be relatively calm and unstressed, minding my own business, when a thought about something stressful or scary—maybe a writing deadline or a student loan payment due soon—flashes into my mind. In the comfort of my own bed, I toggle into fight-or-flight mode: My heart begins to race, I start to feel nauseous, and all hope of a good night’s sleep dissipates as I get anxious about being anxious.

I’ve read about breathing exercises, and several friends have recommended mindfulness apps that include them, but I hadn’t experimented on my nighttime anxiety with physical methods. I suppose I never made the connection that intentional breath could help my body, since we tend to see anxiety as purely mental or emotional.

Hoping for better sleep and, as a result, more productive and intentional mornings, I gave the 2:1 (“two-to-one”) breathing exercise a try—every night in bed, for an entire week.

The premise is this: You concentrate on controlling your breathing, making sure every exhale lasts twice as long as each inhale. It’s a technique heralded by yoga instructors, based on the idea that focused breathing leads to longer, deeping breathing—a practice that’s been shown to reduce your body’s stress response and disengage your mind from distracting thoughts.

Monday:

After a long day of travel, I was physically exhausted but mentally wired. I had so much to do the next day, and my mind felt cluttered and on edge. My body quickly followed suit when I attempted to crash after arriving home from the airport. After a few really deep inhales coupled with twice as long exhales, I felt like I’d had a glass of wine. It definitely felt counterintuitive to be present with that anxious feeling, since I tend to tune out when I’m feeling stressed. I fell asleep much faster than I expected—and woke up the next morning feeling better than I typically do after traveling. A win!

Tuesday:

Another full day of playing catch-up left me feeling exhausted by 7 p.m. Since I accomplished everything I needed to, I wasn’t as anxious at bedtime, but I tried the breathing anyway. Usually, I take CBD oil before bed to get sleepier, but I skipped it this time to see if the breathing would help me the same way. It did, again! I was able to fall asleep relatively quickly and woke up feeling refreshed and grounded, which is rare for me. 

Wednesday: 

This was a rough night. I fell asleep putting my toddler to bed, and woke up abruptly to my other son crying for me in his room, which triggered some anxiety. After comforting him, I tried to go to bed, but my heart was racing and my legs felt jittery. I did the breathing, but it didn’t help right away like it had been. I ended up taking some CBD oil and doing the deep inhales and long exhales for almost five minutes before I noticed a difference in how I felt. 

Thursday: 

I made the mistake of partaking in a Netflix binge before bed without my blue-light glasses, so while I was totally exhausted by 11 p.m., when I tried to fall asleep, I laid there for about an hour before I started to doze off. I did the breathing exercises for almost 20 minutes and didn’t notice a difference, so I got up to read a book until I felt like I could sleep. A bad call on my part. Now I’m curious about how blue light affects the nervous system!

Friday: 

After last night’s insomnia episode, I put my phone away two hours before bed and opted out of watching TV. My kids, husband, and I clocked three miles walking around the State Fair, so to say I was cashed by 9 pm is an understatement. I did the breathing exercises anyway, but I think I only made it through about two minutes before I fell asleep. While the mindful breathing didn’t do much for me (because I didn’t need it), I got a much-needed night of rest.

Saturday: 

My family and I took a last-minute trip out of town to visit family, so we stayed in a hotel. Usually, I get a little anxious in new environments and have a more difficult time falling asleep. I was definitely sleepy by 10 p.m., but I couldn’t seem to fully relax in bed. I did my mindful breathing for probably five minutes before falling asleep, and surprisingly slept through the entire night without my usual “Where am I? wakeup at 2 a.m. 

Sunday: 

Thinking about all the stuff I had to do when I got back home had me stressed. I had a difficult decision to make about a client and my body felt super wired, even though we’d had a really full day running around with the kids. The mindful breathing helped me fall asleep initially (it helped I had a glass of wine before bed), but I woke up several times in the middle of the night tossing and turning. When the deep inhales and longer exhales didn’t calm me down enough to fall back asleep, I took some CBD oil and was able to snooze through until 6 a.m. 

Monday:

Finally, back in my own bed. As planned, I did some mindful breathing for five to 10 minutes before trying to fall asleep, but I didn’t feel anxious to begin with and didn’t have any trouble falling asleep. I woke up one time to go to the bathroom and couldn’t fall immediately back asleep, so I breathed in and out slowly until I dozed. I woke up on Tuesday feeling more refreshed than I have in a long time, and more grounded in my physical body than normal.

My verdict:

After six nights of a before-bed breathing exercise, I didn’t feel like I had slept better than usual, or that my anxiety was suddenly cured. I did, however, feel more aware of my body. In the past, I had described my anxiety as a general, physical feeling, but I noticed that when I breathed intentionally to calm myself down, I was more aware of where the anxiety was—typically in my chest, stomach, or legs. I definitely feel like I gained a new tool for taking care of myself.