How often do you stop and think about how you’re breathing? For most of us, it’s an automatic bodily function we don’t pay much attention to. And, not only do we not stop to think about how we’re breathing, we rarely stop to think about how our breathing affects us – physically and mentally.
I always thought because I did yoga and dabbled in meditation, I was pretty aware of my breathing. But it turns out I really wasn’t.
As many of you will know (partly because I don’t stop going on about it, sorry folks) I struggled a bit with anxiety earlier this year. I was getting chest pains, dizziness and mild depersonalisation.
I had a course of cognitive behavioural therapy and in one of my sessions my therapist explained just how much our breathing affects us, especially when it comes to stress and anxiety.
Breathing, anxiety and your body
When we’re stressed or anxious our body goes into fight or flight mode. Our heart beats faster and our breathing speeds up to get more oxygen so we can fight the ‘threat’, or flee from it.
The thing is, we’re not likely to actually be running or fighting the threat (you can’t fight a stressful meeting at work… can you?), what this means is that the extra oxygen we’re taking in from fast, shallow breathing isn’t being used. We’re therefore not producing extra carbon dioxide and our Co2 levels in our blood go down.
And hey, guess what all this leads to? Chest pain, dizziness and feeling faint.
And how is that likely to make you feel? Well, pretty fucking anxious actually. So it turns into a bit of a vicious cycle and can lead to panic attacks for some.
My therapist explained to me that while I wasn’t experiencing surges of panic and anxiety, I had low-level ongoing anxiety. So all day long I was, without realising it, breathing shallow because I was feeling constantly anxious. It’s no wonder I was exhausted all the time.
The good news
Understanding the way my anxiety and breathing were interlinked was a bit of an epiphany moment, because I realised… I could change this.
Breathing is something we all have full control of. And even better, we can actually use breathing techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (known as the ‘resting and digesting’ system).
When we kick this system into gear it has a calming effect on the whole body and some studies show breathing exercises can reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone). So, if you struggle with stress and anxiety (that’ll be pretty much all of then, right?) I strongly urge you to learn how to breathe better.
“How can I do this?” I hear you cry. Well, I’m glad you asked…
How to breathe better
Become more aware of how you breathe: Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach, breathe normally. Which rose first? When we breathe deep, we breathe from our belly. When we breathe shallow, we breathe from our chest.
Practise belly breathing: If you naturally breathe from your chest, making the switch from chest to belly breathing is your first job. Try to become more aware of your breathing generally and try practising a few minutes of intentional belly breathing every day.
Exhale for longer than you inhale: The next step is to try and extend your out breath for longer than your inhale. This is how you’ll kick your parasympathetic system into action. Try breathing in for the count of four, then out for the count of six. When that feels easy, try breathing in for the count of four, then out for the count of eight.
Practise, practise, practise! The only way you’ll change your breathing is through practise, so make time for it and come back to it when you feel overwhelmed, stressed or anxious. I try and get some practise in every day whether that’s through yoga, meditation or just taking five minutes to intentionally breathe from my belly.
Some helpful breathing tools:
- The ‘Relax Lite’ app has some super simple breathing exercises.
- Insight timer is a lovely place to find meditations.
- Love this ‘wheel of awareness’ meditation from Ashley Paquin.
As well as all the science-y stuff, breathing connects us with the present moment. It grounds us. It brings us back to our bodies. It holds so much power, something I’m constantly learning through meditation, yoga and my own self-awareness journey.
Ironically, as I write this I’m wrestling with some chest pain (there’s a lot going on right now guys!) so I’m going to go and practise what I preach with some breathing exercises. Hope you’ll join me.
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