Breathing to Calm Yourself
How can breathing help manage anxiety?
Breathing seems like such a simple thing - it's easy to take for granted or forget just how powerful a tool it can be in helping to center and ground yourself when you feel overwhelmed, fearful, or anxious. Often when I begin to introduce breathing as an approach to managing anxiety, clients express some doubt that something so simple can really be a useful tool.
There are a couple of reasons why I think breathing is important. The first reason is physiological. Inhaling stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that makes you excited, aroused, and flee danger) and exhaling stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (the part that says everything is OK, you can calm down, danger has passed). The second reason I think breathing is an important tool is that it is always there. Of course, the unnoticed, automatic breathing that happens every moment of your life is critical to your survival, but the moment you bring attention to your breath, you can harness it as a tool for relaxation. Your breath can become an anchor that lets your body know it is time to relax.
Breathing to Calm Yourself
There are lots of variations on how to use breathing to signal your parasympathetic nervous system and calm yourself. I suggest trying them all and seeing which ones feel most comfortable and give you the best result.
This technique is pretty simple but surprisingly effective at promoting relaxation. The key is to equally sustain your inhalation and exhalation for a count of about five breaths per minute.
- find a comfortable position: you can sit, stand, or lie down, as long as your lungs are not constricted
- inhale to a count of five
- exhale to a count of five
- continue this for a comfortable period of time, five to ten minutes can be helpful
- notice any difference in body sensations after this exercise, you can repeat it several times throughout the day
The number refers to the counting you do with this breathing technique. The idea is to lengthen both the time you hold your breath and your exhalation as a way to promote relaxation.
- find a comfortable position, making sure your lungs are not constricted
- inhale to a count of four
- hold your breath for a count of seven
- exhale for a count of eight
- repeat this cycle for several minutes, you can also adjust the count based on your lung capacity and what feels comfortable
A common problem for individuals who deal with anxiety is that breathing is too shallow and rapid. This is a particularly good technique for dealing with panic symptoms and feelings of overwhelm.
- find a comfortable position and place one hand on your breastbone and the other hand on your belly. You'll use your hands to monitor what muscles you are using and how you are breathing.
- open your mouth and let out a long sigh. You want to drop your shoulders - almost as if you are making the sigh dramatic. The idea is that your upper body will stay relaxed while breathing.
- close your mouth and inhale through your nose while pushing out with your stomach. Imagine filling your stomach with air rather than your lungs
- pause and hold your breath for a comfortable amount of time
- exhale through your mouth, pulling your stomach in to release all of the air from your lungs
- repeat several for several cycles and notice how your body feels and what sensations you experience
There are several resistant breathing techniques available. All of them work to slow down your breathing, and especially, your exhalation. Here are some examples:
- inhale in a normal manner and then slow your exhalation by pursing your lips. Imagine that you are breathing out through a straw or blowing out lots of birthday candles.
- inhale in a normal manner and then close your mouth and say "om" as you exhale. The focus is on the "mmmm" sound, which will slow down your exhalation.
Breath out of your nose
- inhale normally and exhale through your nose. For most people this creates resistance and slows down the breath.
Create Internal resistance
- These may take some practice to learn but you can also create resistance by 1) placing the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, 2) slightly tightening your throat muscles as you exhale, or 3) clenching your teeth (gently) as you breathe. All of these slow your exhalation down.
Yoga, Tai Chi and other disciplines
Many disciplines such as yoga and tai chi have specific breathing techniques that can help with relaxation. Taking a class or viewing an instructional video can provide more information about these specific breathing techniques for calming yourself.
To see positive change with any of these techniques requires practice. Try them out and see which ones work best. Take time throughout the day to use them. As usage becomes habit you may find that your body is more responsive at moving from anxiety to relaxation.