Breathing and Anxiety
It is no secret that the speed of life has increased. We live in a fast-paced world where we are constantly stimulated by new information, responsibilities, and unexpected events. When we live at this pace, it can be easy to forget that we are breathing at all, much less that the breath is a powerful tool for easing stress and promoting relaxation. Breathing is, in fact, the first and best line of defense against anxiety. Physicians recommend breathing techniques for relaxation, stress management, and control of physiological states caused by stress. Various forms of breathing exercises have been shown to:
– Improve immune system function
– Shift from “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system activation to “rest and digest” parasympathetic action
– Relieve psychological and stress-related disorders and states, such as panic and anxiety
There are many different ways to use the breath to lower anxiety levels, and we will explore a few popular techniques in this article. Several of the exercises share key tactics:
– Bring attention to the breath – There is a mindfulness component to this breath work. When we focus on the breath, it helps to refocus our attention away from negative thoughts and onto the body. When focusing on the breath, some people find it helpful to think about quality of their breathing (e.g. is each breath deep or shallow? are my breaths short or long?) and the speed of their breathing.
– Slow down – Anxiety often causes hyperventilation. To counteract this, it can be helpful to slow down the breath, especially the exhale. Individuals with panic disorder or anxiety disorders are more sensitive to hyperventilation than the general public, and take more time to recover after hyperventilation. This has been measured by comparing levels of sweat on the skin, carbon dioxide in the body, and heart rate.
– Deepen the breath – anxiety often causes shallow breathing into the top part of the lungs. Shallow and rapid breathing can cause us to blow off too much carbon dioxide (CO2) When the balance of CO2 in the brain is disrupted, it can cause other symptoms of panic and anxiety. In addition, the constriction of the diaphragm by shallow breathing into the upper lungs also contributes to anxiety. Breathing into the belly, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, allows the diaphragm to expand and relax. The relaxation of the diaphragm contributes to lowering of anxiety.
A Brief Introduction to the Nervous System
In order to truly understand how breathing can be so helpful during stressful times, it helps to understand what is going on in the body when it is stimulated, or when we experience stress.
There are two main branches to the Central Nervous System (CNS). First, we have the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is in charge of those functions over which we have very little conscious control: metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, endocrine function, etc. The somatic nervous system, on the other hand, allows for conscious control of skeletal muscles, for example walking, talking, and eating.
The autonomic nervous system consists of two components: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). All body systems and organs receive instructions from both the SNS and PNS. SNS is the “fight or flight” part of our nervous systems, which accelerates the body, while the PNS is the “rest and digest” component that allows us to slow down.
Anxiety is connected to an overactive SNS. The “fight or flight” response involves our body’s preparation for an emergency situation: the pupils dilate, heartbeat quickens, blood pressure increases, blood flows to the large muscles and critical organs, and stress hormone levels increase. While this reaction is invaluable in a true emergency, we live in a world of many stress triggers that may skew our nervous system towards sympathetic dominance. When the SNS is over stimulated, the autonomic system does not get a chance to rebalance. When we are out of balance, we may end up walking around with anxiety, muscle tension, elevated blood pressure and poor digestion. This state is called “sympathetic dominance,” and may lead to maladies such as hypertension, headaches, TMJ, digestive problems, insomnia, attention problems, pain, and muscle spasms.
Breath and the Nervous System
Breathing is special because we have both conscious and automatic control of the breath. There are a few other bodily functions, such as blinking, swallowing, chewing and excretion that also have this dual control. Breath allows for a way to tap into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system balance. Breath can be used to transition from the “fight or flight” response to the “rest and digest” relaxed state of PNS predominance. Notice how you breathe in a situation of fear and anxiety versus a state of relaxation to learn about your breathing patterns.
Breathing Exercise for Anxiety
– It is best to practice breathing for relaxation on regular basis so that in a situation of anxiety and stress you will know exactly what to do.
– Practicing breathing, twice a day for 10 minutes is a good guideline.
– Initially practice breathing in a comfortable setting, eventually practice good breathing in a variety of situations.
– Start by bringing your attention to the breath.
– Breathe into the belly so that the belly rises. It may help to place one hand on the belly to feel as it rises and falls with the breath. No need to over-breathe, or take giant inhales. Keep the inhale comfortable and slow.
– One technique for slowing down your breathing and focusing on the breath is to silently count to 4 on the inhale and count to 6, 8 or 12 on the exhale. With practice and increasing relaxation it may be possible to count to increasingly higher numbers on the exhale. Keep counting, and whenever your mind wanders (which it will!), just gently bring it back to the counting and breathing.
– Keep the breathing and the counting rhythmic.
The Coherent Breath
– The Coherent Breath is an alternative approach to breathing for relaxation and health. Coherent breath is cyclical, with the inhale and exhale of equal length, ideally with a six second inhale and six second exhale.
– Many biofeedback devices use this pattern of breathing to facilitate physiological relaxation of the body.
– Visit coherence.com to learn more about this approach to breathing.
– Visit Heartmath.com to learn more about biofeedback breath training.
Sudarshan Kriya Yoga Breathing
Much of the research on breathing exercises that exists in the scientific literature focuses on Sudarshan Kriya breathing and related practices, which involve several cyclical breathing patterns, ranging from slow to rapid. A review article of Sudarshan Kriya published in the International Journal of Yoga in 2013, noted that “There is mounting evidence to suggest that Sudarshan Kriya yoga can be a beneficial, low-risk, low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.” Research evidence for the benefit of this specific breathing technique is still limited.
The techniques outlined above can be useful on their own, or used in concert with each other. Because the breath is a link between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and is something we have access to all the time, it can be a very powerful ally when we deal with anxiety disorders, panic disorders, or just the stress of everyday life.