Breath. It’s the foundation of our life. Science shows that, generally, we can survive for 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. But, we cannot survive without our breath for more than 3 minutes.
When people come to see me for treatment for anxiety, I am struck by how easy it is to forget about our best tool for managing anxiety: our breath. When we are young, our breath works as it should – expanding from our bellies. Have you ever seen an infant sleep? What part of their body moves? Their belly! Ever been in choir? Where do they tell you to breathe from? From your diaphragm! That is because that’s the way our bodies are designed to breathe – deeply.
Yet, as we grow older, as anxiety and the stress of life sets in, the location of our breath travels up our bodies and we breathe from our chest. This is the worst, most shallow breath we can take. Our lungs and diaphragm don’t even fully expand when we do this. The best illustration of how this is to think about someone you know who has had a panic attack or hyperventilated. Where do those breaths come from? Their chest. They are shallow and short. This illustrates anxiety, the “fight or flight” response for those under stress.
Don’t take my word for it. Try it! Take inventory of your body right now, as you read this. Where is your breath coming from right in this second? Maybe even put one hand over your chest and another over your belly button. Which hand is moving? My guess is your top one.
This is opposite to the kind of breath we need to be able to manage stress and anxiety effectively. The deeper we breathe, the more we expand our bellies, and the more oxygen we can get to our brain, the greater the benefits. We become more clear-headed, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure lowers, our muscles relax, our emotions begin to calm, and we begin to feel less overwhelmed. The important part about this for the treatment of anxiety is that, if we can slow our breath and breathe from the correct part of our boy, even before we feel emotionally calm, we can literally halt the process of panic in the brain.
Technically speaking, intentional, slow, deep breathing triggers a parasympathetic reaction that is the opposite of anxiety and stress. For example, as explained more in this article, the ability to relax is controlled by a separate set of nerves, with the main nerve being the Vagus nerve, also known as the “brake” on the stress response. So, when you breathe as you should, you are putting the brakes on anxiety and stress.
This is “Anxiety Treatment 101″ because the breath is our most important tool. Following your breath can be a great way to check in on how our bodies are feeling during a moment of anxiety. But, don’t complicate it. It takes practice. At first, you may feel like you are pushing your gut out. This means that you are doing it correctly but this also feels awkward. For some, a helpful tip to illustrate how to breathe well is to envision you are blowing out a candle. Take in all of your breath and expel it out just a deeply.
Deepak Chopra, an expert on all things related to the breath and holistic approaches to wellness, outlines some other breathing tips here. When I work with others in treating anxiety, I have found that people often need to experiment with various techniques in order to find what works best for them. Some like to count their breath for 8 seconds as they breathe in, hold for 8 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. As mentioned on Dr. Chopra’s website listed above, this technique can be traced back centuries as an anciect Yogic tradition for holistic wellness. Such a technique can help even more to slow the heart and halt the brain’s attempts at stress. But for some, especially for those with panic attacks, this can feel like too much.
~Ashley Carter Youngblood, LMSW, LMFT, CADC, ADS
Ashley Carter Youngblood is both a Fully-licensed Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist who has been in the field since 2007. She offers counseling in Kalamazoo, Portage, Mattawan, Battle Creek, Paw Paw, and the surrounding areas of Southwest Michigan. She is passionate about her work with clients, whether it’s providing individual counseling, couples counseling, family therapy, or life coaching. Her specialties include holistic healing/mindfulness, counseling for women, anxiety, couples counseling, and addictions/substance abuse.
I welcome you to contact me or leave any questions or feedback you have about this post. Please keep in mind that the above information is the opinion of an individual, should not be considered medical advice, and is for entertainment/educational purposes only. I write these blogs as an expression of my passion for wellness and with the hope to be able to help as many people as possible. Therefore, I would encourage anyone seeking mental health advice to contact a therapist in your area who can better evaluate your situation and provide you with case-specific information for treatment. Also remember, if you are experiencing an emergency, contact 911 or present yourself to your nearest emergency room.
Thanks for reading.