| By Penny Amann |
When stress levels are high, it can seem just about impossible to breathe.
The chest becomes tight and constricted, the shoulders are clenched, and the abdomen is rigid. Breathing is choppy, shallow and difficult.
This is opposite from the effortlessly smooth, rhythmic breath that we experience in moments of calm. However, for those struggling with chronic anxiety and worry, tension and strain in the breath can start to seem normal.
Breathing exercises that focus on smooth, longer inhales and exhales can alleviate such patterns of restriction in the body, and in turn bring some ease to the mind.
In fact, when done correctly, mindful breathing has been found to be one of the best alleviators of anxiety and can restore a sense of harmony and relaxation in the body.
One of the symptoms that all sufferers of anxiety share is that the inhale is rarely drawn below the sternum, aka shallow breathing.
For years I suffered with insomnia, some depression and lots of anxiety attacks and even went down the path of panic attacks a few times.
What I never realized was that my breath was so shallow during these times. It got to a point that this shallow breath was always with me, and in a sense, I forgot how to breath.
I would band-aid these anxiety and panic attacks with lots of prescriptions for anxiety. The medication would temporarily calm me down, but sometimes coming off the medication would worsen my symptoms.
My doctor recommended yoga for years, and finally I listened to him.
It wasn’t until I stepped into my first yoga class that I actually paid attention to my breathing. And the first few classes that I had to focus on my breath, I really became a bit more agitated.
My lungs weren’t used to having oxygen deep into the lower lung lobes. Think of a muscle that you haven’t stretched in a long time. When you begin to stretch it out or exercise it, it will be a little (or a lot) tight.
Over time, the muscle responds, stretching, lengthening and becoming more flexible.
It was the same way with my lungs. Those first few rounds of deep breathing into my unused, tight lower lungs was not easy. But quickly in the course of a short time, my lungs expanded more easily, and began to feel my whole body sigh with relief when I deeply breathed.
And the anxiety attacks slowly went away.
With the help and guidance of my doctor, I slowly went off all my prescriptions for depression, anxiety and insomnia.
I learned the healing power of my own breath.
Let’s take a look at some physical facts. Deeper breathing…
- Trains you to respond better to stress. Moving from the sympathetic nervous system (the place of fight or flight/cortisol-releasing state) into the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. When deep breathing is practiced over longer periods of time (1 to 2 minutes twice a day, every day, for example) the parasympathetic nervous system is strengthened, and over time you will naturally fall into deep, relaxed breath when stressful situations arise.
- Relaxes the body. Deep, smooth breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, and this structure connects the brain with other parts of the body, slowing down the heart rate to bring calmness throughout your body.
- Taps into the full capacity of our lungs. Release abdominal tightness. We naturally hold tightness in our abdomens when we are stressed. But too much of this restricts the flow of breath deep into the lungs. Through deeper breathing, we learn to relax the belly, allowing for the lungs to expand fully.
- Helps us let go of fear and negative thinking. Stress and anxiety make it impossible to function in the present. When we are in a constant state of fear (worrying about possible future outcomes) or anxiety about the past (the would-have, could-have, should-have state of thinking) we are not here in this present moment. Breathing is a proven way to reconnect with the here and now, and let go of some things that may be out of your control.
Now, for the surprisingly easy how-to exercise on deep breathing:
- Find yourself in a comfortable sitting position, with a long spine. Maybe you have a wall behind you. (If you round the spine, you are constricting your lungs, so roll your shoulders back and open the front body). If you prefer, lie down long on your back. Softly close the eyes.
- Now gently place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest right around the sternum area.
- Take a long, slow inhale to the count of 4 in through the nose and pause for a second or 2 without closing the throat.
- Now, exhale slowly through the nose for a count of 5, pausing at the bottom of the exhale for a second or 2 without constricting the throat.
Each time you inhale, really expand the belly like a balloon, each time you exhale, the belly naturally contracts. Do five or six rounds of this deep belly-breath, and then allow the breath to come back into a natural state, and just observe your response. When you are ready, either practice another few rounds of deep breath, or simply end the practice.
Do this twice a day, preferably before the anxiety begins but whenever you feel that tightness of anxiety creeping into your body. Notice over time that your body will naturally go into this breathing technique when stressful situations pop up. You can eventually expand this process to 20 minutes or more, but even a handful of rounds of deep-belly breath are enough to start to alleviate anxiety immediately.
I hope I have shed some new light on the old “just breathe” saying.
Remember this: Right here, right now, in this present moment, you are right where you are supposed to be. So just breathe.
Penny Amann is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200), an American Council on Exercise (ACE) group fitness instructor and a Total Body Resistance Exercise (TRX) Level-2 coach. She teaches at Pure Yoga for Life in Clermont.