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Breathing Techniques That May Help With Anxiety

Breathing Techniques That May Help With Anxiety



Topics Covered In This Post

  • Is the breath the secret to managing our anxiety?
  • How controlling the breath help with anxiety? 
  • Using the breath to get grounded. 
  • Can breathing techniques cure anxiety? 
  • Breathing techniques that help with anxiety. 
  • Treatment for chronic anxiety issues. 

Is the Breath The Secret to Managing Our Anxiety? 

“Breathing is the only system in the body that is both automatic and also under our control. This is not an accident of nature, not a coincidence – it’s an invitation, an opportunity, to take part in our own nature and evolution.”
Dan Brule - Just Breathe: Mastering Breathwork

One of the things that happens when we are stressed is that our breathing becomes more rapid. This increase in our respiratory rate is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. It is happening because the body is preparing for the ‘fight or flight’ response ( ) - the body is making sure that there is plenty of oxygen available for the muscles should we need to fight or run away. 

This reaction by the automatic nervous system is an evolutionary response to danger that is hardwired into our bodies. The problem is that it is arguably more suited to our ancient ancestors who were hunters on the savannah and were in constant danger of physical attack. The kind of stress-provoking situations we experience mostly do not require a fight or flight response, yet the body responds as if we were in real physical danger. If this happens regularly, as is the case with chronic anxiety, it can cause damage to our physical and mental health. Luckily, we have the ability to soothe the fight and flight response. The secret is to use the breath because this is not only controlled automatically but also consciously. 

How Can Controlling the Breath Help with Anxiety? 

Breathing slowly and deeply has a soothing effect on the body. It means that we can use it to ease the symptoms of anxiety and as a way to ease the fight or flight response (deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the body).  It also helps to ground us (see below) so that we are not taken hostage by agitated thoughts and negative emotions. 

“Studies are revealing that by changing the patterns of our breathing it is possible to restore balance to stress response systems, calm an agitated mind, relieve symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), improve physical health and endurance, elevate performance, and enhance relationships.”
Richard P. Brown and Patricia E. Gerbarg - The Healing Power of the Breath

Using The Breath to Get Grounded 

One of the problems with worry and other forms of negative thinking is that it can ramp up anxiety. For example, if we feel uncomfortable in social situations, we may experience an inner dialogue (e.g. ‘they don’t like me’ or ‘why did I say that?’) that just agitates us more. Grounding is a way of moving our attention away from this inner dialogue to something less anxiety-provoking like the breath.  

To ‘be grounded’ means to focus on what we are actually experiencing rather than a story about what is happening. To do this we can deliberately focus on the information coming from one of the five senses (taste, smell, sight, sound, or touch). We are experience the breath as a form of touch (physical sensation), and this can be an easy way to shift our attention away from thinking.

Can Breathing Techniques Cure Anxiety? 

Those of us who have struggled with anxiety can find it hard to accept that something as simple as breathing techniques will offer a solution. It is true that breathing techniques by themselves are unlikely to cure chronic anxiety issues, but they can play a key part in our recovery. It is also important to keep in mind that it would not be a good idea to remove anxiety completely from our lives because it helps to keep us alive. What breathing techniques can certainly do is help us to better manage our anxiety. 

Breathing Techniques That Help With Anxiety 

  • Lower belly breathing. It can be helpful to imagine that there is a balloon in your lower belly that is inflating and deflating as you breathe in and breathe out (breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose). There is something particularly comforting about breathing into the lower belly. It soothes the knots of tension that often accumulate here due to anxiety, and it moves our attention well away from the agitated mind. Lower belly breathing can be performed sitting, lying down, standing, or even walking around. 
  • Box breathing (square breathing) is a simple way to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system by breathing slowly and deeply. It can be done lying down or in a chair initially until you get the hang of it, but really, it can be performed in any situation lying, sitting, or standing. The instructions involve slowly counting to four as you breathe in, holding the breath as you count to four, and then breathing out to the count of four. You can repeat this technique until you fully relaxed ( ). 
  • Breathing Space is a 3-minute practice that was developed Zindel Seagal et al. ( ) as a tool used in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). During the first minute you simply pay attention to what is happening right now in a non-judgmental way. In the second minute, the attention moves to breath in the body. Finally, the attention expands to include the entire body for the last minute. 
  • Alternative nostril breathing involves breathing in one nostril and out the other one. It can be helpful to use the thumb to block the nostril that you are not breathing through. It is usual to begin by breathing through the left nostril and out through the right (remove the thumb), and then alternate nostrils. Continue until you feel settled. 
  • 4-7-8 breathing exercise can be particularly relaxing because it is so effective at slowing the breath down. It is also a very engaging practice. The instructions are to breathe in to the count of four, hold the breath for a count to seven, and then lengthen the out-breath for a count of 8. 
  • Peaceful breaths involves silently repeating words in conjunction with the in and out breaths. As you breathe in, say to yourself ‘peace’, and as you breathe out, say to yourself ‘calm’. 

Treatment for Chronic Anxiety Issues 

Breathing techniques can be a big help when it comes to dealing with anxiety issues. Unfortunately, they may only be effective for easing the symptoms rather than providing a cure. It is usually going to be necessary to deal with the underlying issues for things to get really better in a lasting way. This will often require some kind of therapy.

Here at 180 Sanctuary, we provide client-centered evidenced-based programs for the treatment of all kinds of anxiety issues (including post-traumatic stress disorder). Please contact us now to find out more about what we can offer you. 

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