Although life has a way of providing an abundance of challenges, we humans have the remarkable ability to tolerate a wide range of stressful and uncomfortable situations; however, what each person finds stressful will differ. One person might be thrilled at the thought of bungee jumping, while someone else might find themselves feeling queasy simply looking down a flight of stairs.What’s common to us all is the fight-or-flight response that enables each individual to respond to danger or situations they find stressful. When an individual is feeling anxious, the stress response kicks in, bringing with it physiological changes like sweating, rapid breathing, tensed muscles, feelings of nausea, heightened awareness, and other signs that typically accompany anxiety.
While some people are aware of immediate physiological signs of their anxiety, others may experience them in more subtle ways and may not even be aware of them until they realize they have a headache, tense shoulders, or sweaty palms.
Our innate fight-or-flight response allows us to react to danger by either fighting off a threat or fleeing to safety. Unfortunately, our bodies can react similarly to non-life-threatening stressful situations, triggering a deluge of hormones that initiate the same physiological responses necessary to react to physical danger, yet making it more difficult to calmly react to the daily stressors of living.
When you’re feeling anxious, one of the ways to calm your mind and body is to focus on and control your breathing. Knowing how to do this effectively can be a powerful tool in dealing with anything from crippling anxiety that grips you suddenly with intense symptoms to quieter forms of anxiety that make it difficult to relax or cause us to fret and worry. Intentional breathing can also help in those moments when you just need to clear your head and complete a task.
Is anxiety bad for you?
Have you ever heard that a little bit of something is good for you, but too much can be detrimental? There truly is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and that applies to stress and anxiety as much as to anything else. Low to moderate levels of stress can be a motivator to engage and accomplish the task at hand. At moderate levels, stress can provide clarity and enhance performance.
When you experience high levels of anxiety or stress, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which causes the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to be released into the body. This leads to the physiological changes that comprise the stress response.
Increased levels of stress can contribute to increased levels of anxiety, and prolonged periods of anxiety can contribute to heightened stress responses. And so it goes. Stress and anxiety can reinforce each other, causing your physical health to deteriorate.
Some signs that stress and anxiety are affecting your health include the following:
- Changes in appetite.
- Bodily aches and pains.
- Physical inactivity.
- Maladaptive coping through increased smoking, drinking, or drug use.
- Social isolation.
- Inability to focus and concentrate.
- Irritability or restlessness.
- Difficulty relaxing.
- Difficulty sleeping.
Because we often can’t avoid stress, it’s important to learn strategies to manage stress and anxiety constructively to avoid negative health effects. Breathing is one of the most effective strategies to reduce anxiety.
What is breathing for anxiety?
Anxiety may induce short, rapid breathing that leaves you feeling lightheaded and affects the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, increasing the anxiety and feelings of stress. Breathing to reduce anxiety, slow, deep, intentional breathing, has the opposite effect, activating the parasympathetic system, which acts as a brake to the stress response, stimulating full oxygen exchange, and creating a sense of calm.
There are many different breathing techniques, from box breathing to 4-7-8 breathing, cyclic sighing, belly breathing, mindfulness breathing, pursed-lip breathing, resonance breathing, alternate nostril breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, quieting response, and teddy bear breathing, to name a few.
Whether you’re feeling anxious or calm, don’t wait to begin including breathing practice into your daily routine. Practicing breathing techniques when you are relaxed and calm will allow you to become comfortable with a technique and increase its effectiveness when you do find yourself in a stressful situation. In fact, practicing breathing exercises just five minutes a day for one month has been shown to significantly reduce overall anxiety levels and improve mood.
A few breathing techniques to try.
As you practice any breathing technique, when you inhale, focus on the air filling your lungs and abdomen. As you exhale, concentrate on the air as it exits your lungs and mouth. Whenever a breathing exercise involves counting, repeat the numbers silently to yourself.
Box breathing, sometimes called square breathing, is perhaps one of the easiest breathing techniques to remember and practice because as you breathe, you visualize a square and each of its four sides as you perform each step. Box breathing can be done anywhere in any position and is often taught and practiced by the military.
Follow these steps:
- Breathe in through your nose to a count of four.
- Hold the air in your lungs for a four-count.
- Exhale through your mouth to a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a four-count.
Repeat at least four times for best results, but even one cycle can be helpful.
Cyclic sighing is another form of breathwork that is also simple to practice, but focuses on long, slow exhalations. Research has shown that cyclic sighing five minutes per day can reduce anxiety, and even improve mood.
Cyclic sighing can be practiced following the steps below:
- Inhale through your nose, comfortably filling your lungs.
- Then take another, deeper breath to fill the lungs completely.
- Exhale slowly through the mouth, taking at least twice as long to exhale
- Continue for five minutes.
Another breathing exercise, called 4-7-8 breathing, can be done while you’re seated, but once you have the hang of it, you can practice it while lying in bed to help you fall asleep. With 4-7-8 breathing, begin by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue resting against the back of your two front teeth throughout the exercise. The steps to follow for 4-7-8 breathing are as follows:
- Empty your lungs in a long exhale with your breath flowing out through your lips.
- Breathe in through the nose for the count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth by pursing your lips a bit around your tongue and making a “whoosh” sound for the count of 8.
- Repeat this cycle 4 times.
Another breathing technique that you can try is resonant or resonance breathing. This technique, which is sometimes called coherent breathing, involves a slow, steady rate of breathing, rather than deep breathing. It can lower blood pressure and improve heart rate variability, as well as decrease anxiety. Begin by sitting or lying down and closing your eyes. Then follow these steps:
- With your mouth closed, breathe in gently through your nose for a count of six seconds, and avoid filling your lungs too deeply.
- Without forcing the breath, exhale slowly and gently for six seconds.
- Continue this process for 5 minutes, working up to 10 or 20 minutes.
After completing the process, take a few more minutes to simply be still and focus on how your body feels.
Another example of breathing to help you feel calmer is pursed lips breathing, which allows you to have more control over your breathing, bring more oxygen into your lungs, and improve breathing function for those with lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
According to the American Lung Association, you can practice pursed lip breathing by doing the following:
- Breathe in through your nose.
- With pursed lips (as if you were going to blow out a candle), breathe out. Try to make your exhalation at least 2 times longer than your inhalation
- Repeat these steps 5 to 10 times, and don’t hesitate to stop if you find yourself feeling light-headed.
There are many other breathing techniques you can use to reduce anxiety and increase a sense of calm. They differ in their duration, where they are best practiced, and also in their complexity. Although certain studies may indicate that one technique is more effective than another, the important thing is to find one that’s comfortable and effective for you.
When you practice breathwork, intentional, controlled breathing, you can reduce anxiety levels and alleviate symptoms, calming yourself in the moment when you need it most.
How breathing for anxiety works.
Controlling your breathing, particularly your exhalation, increases the amount of oxygen that gets to your brain, and it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling your brain to put the brakes on your fight or flight response. When you control your breathing, especially your exhalation, the vagus nerve is stimulated, which causes your blood pressure and heart rate to fall and increases feelings of calm and relaxation, especially if you practice it regularly.
Seeking help for anxiety.
We all experience anxiety at some point in our lives. Anxiety and our body’s stress response is a natural part of how our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies react to threats or danger, and breathing exercises are one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety.
Most breathing exercises are simple, don’t require any special training or equipment, and they can be done anywhere and at any time. In addition to using breathing techniques to help quiet your anxiety, you can also use guided meditation, spend time out in creation enjoying nature, journal, count to 10 or backwards from 100 to help you calm down.
While some anxiety is perfectly normal and not a cause for concern, other forms of anxiety can feel overwhelming or become so persistent that it hampers daily functioning and enjoyment of life. If you find that your anxiety is becoming overwhelming, if it prevents you from getting your work or schoolwork done, or if it prevents you from hanging out with your loved ones, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.Speak to a doctor if you find yourself:
- Caught in constant loops of worrying that don’t seem to end.
- Experiencing frequent or excessive anxiety that gets in the way of your daily activities.
- Feeling unable to relax.
- Dealing with anxiety by using drugs or alcohol.
- Feeling constantly restless.
- Noticing changes in your sleeping, eating, or personal hygiene habits.
- Experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety such as muscle tension and a racing heart.
- Experiencing irrational fears or feeling intense fear of certain everyday situations, like going to a party or the grocery store.
- Self-harming or thinking about self-harming.
- Having suicidal thoughts.
- Feeling as though you’re out of control.
- Avoiding situations like being outside or in crowds of people.
Anxiety and anxiety disorders can managed through counselling and in some cases with the added help of medication. If anxiety is undermining your sense of well-being, reach out to a doctor or speak with a Christian counselor so you can begin moving toward a more peaceful, fulfilled life.
“Resting”, Courtesy of Hannah Busing, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;”Take a Step Back and Breathe”, Courtesy of Max van den Oetelaar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;”Letting Go of the Stress”, Courtesy of Eli DeFaria, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;”Inhale, Exhale, Repeat”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;
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