WEEK 12 – Breathing for anxiety

Tam Johnston

Wednesday Worry tips

This weeks tip seems so simplistic for some people that its often skipped through or disregarded. Yet, it is vital in reducing anxiety, panic, stress and tension symptoms and for ‘resetting’ the mind and body.

When stress, tension, anxiety or panic kicks in, the first thing to respond is our breathing. Most of us have heard ‘and breathe’ yet, how many of us know ‘how’ or truly give it the adjustments it needs?

The need for breathing techniques

 A ‘Captain obvious’ moment here – our brain and body needs adequate oxygen for it to feel calm, safe and remain in balance. A lack of oxygen, or too much retained carbon dioxide because we are breathing too shallowly to exhale it all out, interrupts the equilibrium of the body.
The result? The chemistry of our body goes awry. We get an imbalance of oxygen levels and a fluctuation in stress hormones, all producing the symptoms that are well known in anxiety stress and panic.
So what we do about it? In my experience working with clients, is common to disregard the power of our breathing on our clarity of mind and bodily sensations. I regularly (and understand) hear objections around… “If I focus on my breathing it makes my anxiety worse” or “I don’t know until it’s too late, and then I can’t get it back under control”.
The key is to practice good quality breathing when we are feeling relaxed, that way, we don’t need to focus on it so much or try so hard when we need it for real. It’s like when we are using our body for working out. The more we use it in a particular way, the more acquainted we get with how that feels and how to repeat those results. It’s the same here, that if we get into the habit of knowing how to breathe well and deeply, and find a natural rhythm that is comfortable for us, then we then have something to calibrate against to recognise when we breathing differently, so we can catch it early and interrupt the anxiety, tension or panic cycle.
Additionally, we will have become so well-trained in the breathing technique that suits us, we will be able to use it far more effectively when needed, and it also serves as conditioned response for relaxation.
Deep slow breathing from the abdomen stimulates what is known as the vagus nerve, which kick-starts the calming response in our body and reduces the fight and flight response and symptoms. So simply put, good quality breathing is your fast track to reducing anxiety and the unpleasant symptoms it brings.

Different breathing techniques

There are many different ways to breathe the can lead to a reduction in symptoms. I’ll briefly outline a few below so you can look into them more, and I’ll cover each one in a lot more detail in a later post.

Before I outlined them, the most essential thing is to understand where your breathing needs to come from. It’s commonly referred to as abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing,  so this is underneath your rib cage, or better still from your belly button. The tendency is to resist and tighten up, but what you are trying to teach yourself ahead of time, is how to relax the muscles to enable a full lungful of air.

Experiment with a combination of inhaling through your nostrils and out through the mouth, or finding your dominant nostril (by occluding the other one) and inhaling slowly through that nostril and then exhaling slowly through pursed lips, open mouth or if it feels comfortable out through your nose as well.
You’ll find what feels right for you and works best, but it does take some experimentation and practice.

4-7-8 Breathing

This is in for four, hold for seven and then slowly out through your mouth for eight counts.

Ha, ha, ha breathing

This one can be great if you have a lot of tension called up with the anxiety symptoms, as it seems to help release this at the same time. It involves taking a very deep breath in through the abdomen and then slowly breathing out in short, sharp bursts as though you are saying ha ha ha ha ha.

Abdominal breathing

Imagine that you have a balloon inside your belly. When you breathe in that balloon is can be gently pushing against your abdominal wall, forcing it outwards. Think of it like when you see children pushing the stomach out as far as they can go to pretend they are ‘Mr Greedy’ or carrying a baby like ‘Mummy’. It is that effect that you’re after.
The tendency here is most people suck their stomach up and in when they try and breathe in. This does completely the opposite and can be highly effective as one of the first breathing patterns to use when you feeling anxious or panicky.

A breath is for life, not just for anxiety!

So I’ll do more on these in a later post, but for now, just try these out to see what works for you. There is no right or wrong way (other than breathing slower and lower!) so aim to find what creates the most calming effect for you and practice the techniques daily.  Careid out regularly, you will increase what is known as your ‘vagal tone’ which has been proven to lower stress and anxiety, increase resilience and cognitive functioning. So breathe your way to good health.

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WEEK 8 – Directing your mind in Anxiety

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