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Breathing exercises for anxiety

December 30, 2019

When we’re feeling anxious, our breathing is one of the things that can be impacted very quickly. Anxiety triggers a number of different physiological responses, and faster, shallower breathing is a very common one, often alongside a rapid heart rate. Normally we don’t even notice we’re breathing – it’s something that just happens automatically. But when it gets quicker we can suddenly become aware of it, which can cause our anxiety to escalate, leading us to over-breathe or hyperventilate.

By using calming techniques when we start to feel our breathing change, we can bring it under control once again and stop ourselves ‘spiralling’ into panic.

When our breathing changes, it can be scary if we don’t really know what’s going on. Worrying about why it’s happening, or being afraid we might pass out or be sick for example, could ramp up the anxiety even more. Understanding the biological reasons why it happens can help.

Our breathing and heart rate get faster when we’re under stress as part of the evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response. We might need to run away or defend ourselves, so the brain activates our system to send more oxygen to the muscles. This is useful if we’re being attacked – but not so much if we’re standing in a queue at the supermarket!

Here’s where breathing techniques come in. By consciously slowing our breathing we can reverse the process, and stop the vicious circle. There’s a scientific basis behind this: we have two nervous systems that regulate the air coming in and out of our lungs. The sympathetic nervous system arouses the body, while the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates relaxation. Controlling our breathing calms us by switching from the former system to the latter.

Belly breathing is one simple technique to get us breathing more deeply and slowly. Place one hand on your stomach, and the other hand on the top of your chest. Inhale slowly through your nose, focusing on gradually pushing your stomach out in a way that moves the lower hand. When you’ve taken in as much air as you can without making the upper hand move, breathe out slowly through your mouth – again focusing on gently pushing the air out using your stomach, and making that lower hand move.

Square breathing combines the physical exercise with visualisation, and can be really effective. Sit tall in a chair with both feet on the floor. Picture a square hovering in front of you – you could even use a window or a picture frame! Focus on the top left-hand corner. Inhale for a count of four, imagining your breath travelling along the top side of the square to the right. Hold for four, letting your gaze continue down the right-hand side of the square. Exhale for four, ‘travelling’ along the bottom side, then hold again for four, bringing your gaze up to the top left again and completing the square.

As well as slowing our breathing right down, these techniques help us to anchor ourselves back in the present moment again, which is especially important if we’re anxious about something that’s in the past or future. There’s a reason yoga and mindfulness focus on breathing to help create a sense of wellbeing!

Breathing exercises are something you need to practice in advance, so you’re ready to put them into action when you need to. It’s worth the effort: it can be very empowering to realise that it’s possible to influence how you feel when you’re becoming anxious. You can bring your breathing under control, and nip those feelings of panic in the bud.

Find out more about how CBT can be used to treat anxiety.

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