Breathing is something that we rarely think about. It’s an automatic process that we don’t usually pay much attention to. However, if we are feeling anxious, controlling our breathing can help us to bring our anxiety levels down.
Some clients ask me why breathing is the first tool I offer them in relation to their anxiety. In short, controlling your breathing can “tell” the fear centre in your brain that the anxiety alarm can be turned off as there is nothing to fear at present. There are lots of different ways to “tell” the fear centre that you are safe, but conscious breathing can be a fast way to regulate your nervous system.
If you notice your breathing pattern next time you feel anxiety, you may notice something different about your breathing patterns when you are calm vs when you are anxious. When you are feeling anxious, your autonomic nervous system will have sent the alert to the body to take on more oxygen to feed the big muscles required for you to fight or flight if necessary. This will adjust your breathing to focus on the “in” breath more than the out breath. If you are prone to panic attacks, this focus on the “in” breath is much more pronounced.
Everyone is different so the exercises offered are not the only ones available or guaranteed to work for everyone, but they are the ones that I use most frequently with clients to give them a tool to help with their anxiety. As with anything, the more tools we have to manage, the better we are able to cope. Before trying the exercise below, it is important to note that the first practice should be when you are feeling in a calm state. If at any point you feel the anxiety rising, please stop the exercise as it may not be suitable for you – maybe feeling relaxed and safe is contraindicated in relation to what is happening in your life at present and in order for you to utilise such tools, you need to be in a therapeutic space such as regular counselling to help contain and hold any rising distress.
Let’s think back to that anxious and panicky style of breathing when we are pulling oxygen in as quickly as possible. If we are going to send the message to the brain that things are safe and it is OK to down regulate from an anxious state to a calm state, we can start by focussing on our out breath more. Everyone’s lung capacity is different so the speed of counting will differ, but if you try this when you are calm, you should get a good idea of what kind of pace works for you. The idea is to breathe in deeply to the count of 4, hold for the count of 2 then exhale slowly and gently for the count of 8. It is important not to rush and particularly to pay attention to a nice slow and controlled out breath. Some people find it helpful to imagine a balloon or ball blowing up and then very gently allowing the air to escape as you watch the ball or balloon slowly deflate. As you are focussing on the out breath, maybe notice any tension you are holding in your body. Typically people will find that they are holding it in their shoulders, forehead, jaw, hands or legs but you could be holding it anywhere. When you are breathing out, try to relax each of the areas that are holding tension one by one, taking your time to notice what is happening for you as you are breathing and conscious relaxing your muscles.
I have lots of other techniques that I use with clients. If you have any feedback in relation to your experience with this technique or would like to hear about more, please don’t hesitate to contact me.