This is a common recommendation when someone is going through a high-stress situation.
You may think it’s cliché or too simplistic, breath awareness is actually a very important skill for helping anxiety.
Breath, anxiety and modern society
In his book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, journalist James Nestor outlines the fact that modern humans have actually become very bad at breathing.
In our hectic overscheduled lives, we tend to breathe quickly, through our mouths and into our chests which doesn’t allow for enough oxygen to be circulated in the body.
Email apnea? What the heck?? But it’s true. I didn’t even know it was a thing until a friend told me about it. And then I was like, “For real!” I do it all the time!
Email apnea is when multitasking results in irregular breathing. Sometimes people hold their breath for 30 seconds or more while using their computer or phone.
How deep breathing can help anxiety
Irregular or shallow breathing can contribute greatly to high anxiety and stress.
This is because of the body-mind feedback loop.
When you’re breathing shallowly, rapidly or irregularly, the brain thinks, “There must be a threat,” and begins to mobilize the stress response. That makes your breath shallower, which makes you more anxious, and on and on.
When we breathe quickly or shallowly it causes the nervous system to engage its fight or flight mode, making you feel tense and anxious.
While the body breathes automatically without you having to think about it, being purposeful about your breathing can do wonders to interrupt this cycle.
When you focus on your breath, it turns on the anti-stress, or relaxation, response. This engages the rest and digest branch of the nervous system, promoting calm and relaxation.
In a 2016 study published in the National Library of Medicine, researchers looked at the psychological and physiological effects of deep breaths or sighs.
Participants reported feeling a sense of relief after taking a deep breath or sigh when faced with a stressful or uncomfortable situation.
The study also found that a deep breath relieves and helps anxiety in anxiety-sensitive people, supporting their hypothesis that sighs are in fact psychological and physiological re-setters.
Can’t take a deep breath?
Many people find deep breathing hard, especially if they’re trauma survivors.
It can end up as a struggle, trying to force your breath to become slower and deeper.
If you find deep breathing hard, try coordinating movement and breath.
Lay your hands facing palms up.
As you exhale, curl your fingers in toward your palms (like you’re squeezing the water out of a sponge).
As you inhale, open your fingers away from your palms.
Coordinate the length of time the movement takes with the movement of your fingers.
Continue breathing in this way for a few breaths, and see how that feels.
Incorporating breath awareness into your life
Yogis have been in touch with this practice for many years. In fact, there has been a lot of research to show that different yogic breathing practices can go a long way in helping people manage anxiety.
A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Yoga studied looked at yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) can help patients with treatment-resistant Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
The findings suggested that not only were these breathing practices easy for participants to learn, they also played a role in attention control and a reduction in anxiety symptoms.
You can incorporate breath awareness into your everyday life to help anxiety
Here are some great breathing practices that you can incorporate into your life to help anxiety:
- Slowly exhale letting go of all the air in your lungs,
- Inhale to a count of four, feeling the breath expanding all the way into your abdomen,
- Hold your breath to a count of four,
- Exhale to a count of four, releasing all the air out of your belly and lungs,
- Hold breath out for a count of four,
- Repeat this pattern at least four times, focusing completely on the breath.
Alternate nostril breathing
- Take your right hand and drop your middle and pointer finger, leaving the pinky, ring and thumb raised,
- Slowly exhale,
- Bring your hand up to your nose and plug your left nostril with your ring finger, breathing in through your right nostril,
- Plug your right nostril and exhale fully with your left nostril,
- Breath in through your left nostril,
- Plug your left nostril and breathe out through your right nostril,
- Breathe in through your right nostril,
- Repeat for up to five minutes
It’s important to note that people can have paradoxical responses to breathing practice, and if that’s you, you should know that’s OK. Leave the practices for now and consult with me or another Yoga teacher who has trauma training for individualized instruction.
Breathing practices are only one part of a mental health plan. Click here to book a free “assess and recommend” call with me.