All too often, it’s easy to feel as though anxiety will completely consume you. Caught up in a particular moment, the challenge to return to a calm place is sometimes overwhelming. Fortunately, breathwork techniques can help.
The Power of Breathwork
For many of us, breathing is automatic, and we rarely give it a second thought. So, it’s incredible to think we can develop the abilities to alter our breath pattern in various ways to have an impact on emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health. And this is exactly what people have done for centuries.
Focused breathing exercises are part of many practices and cultures. For example, athletes and singers use specific breath control to optimize their performances. Expectant parents learn the value of Lamaze breathing, a slow, rhythmic, deep pattern to foster better relaxation and prepare for childbirth. Yoga practitioners incorporate pranayama, an ancient breath technique—in Sanskrit, “prana” means life energy and “yama” means control. Tibetan Buddhist monks often practice a breathing and meditation method known as tummo, which means “inner fire.”
These are just a few examples of how to use breathwork to change your energetic state and engage—or disengage—how your mind and body react.
The Body’s Amazing Breath Network
The autonomic nervous system (ANS)—which stems from the peripheral nervous system and is responsible for involuntary functions such as digestion, elimination, heart rate, and metabolism—has two primary divisions that affect your internal state:
- Sympathetic (SNS), which stimulates your “fight or flight” response by arousing various aspects such as heart rate, blood sugar level, and blood pressure. It also increases your breathing rate by widening bronchial tubes and narrowing pulmonary blood vessels.
- Parasympathetic (PNS), which prompts the “rest and digest” response by calming your body’s functions and conserving energy. It decreases your breathing rate by reversing the effect of the SNS.
The third division of the ANS, the enteric, focuses solely on digestion and operates independently of the other two but is influenced by SNS and PNS responses.
To understand how breathing techniques help manage anxiety, get to know your vagus nerve, too. Known as the “wandering nerve,” it’s the longest and most complex of your body’s 12 cranial nerves and is the conduit for neurotransmitters between vital organs and the emotional center of the brain. According to Mindful, “these signals instruct specific organs to respond and function according to three states: safe and social, fight and flight, or freeze and immobilize. As deep breaths slow your heart rate, for example, your vagus nerve recognizes the cues of safety and sends that information to parts of the body so they can turn off their defenses, such as those that arise from a sense of anxiety or threat.”
Our air flow is generally more shallow and irregular throughout the day. So whenever you feel nervous or a little tense, try the easy 10 deep breath technique:
- By focusing on breathing more deeply than you would normally, this signals your SNS not to be so reactive. To do this, use steady diaphragm or belly breathing instead of the usual chest action, which only partially fills the lungs.
- With this particular method, count to 6 on your exhalation, and to 4 on your inhalation. This rhythm sparks the vagus nerve, which sends a safety signal to your PNS to promote calm.
- Once your PNS activates, the SNS reaction lessens, and your ANS is more balanced. Then, you feel less stressed and have better clarity.
It’s hard to imagine just how effective 10 deep breaths might be, but when you see the way your body and mind respond to something so simple, it’s kind of fascinating! Here’s how you can take it to the next level.
Other Breathing Exercises to Help Anxiety
Here are some methods you can practice to see which ones help you manage your anxiety with a soothing pause to reset your system. These can be done sitting, standing, or lying down.
The Square Breath
A popular favorite because of its simplicity, the square breath allows you to imagine a cube segmented into 4 equal parts, and the steady rhythm of breath provides grounding.
- Inhale for a count of 4 at a pace comfortable for you, hold the breath at the same pace for the same count, exhale at the same pace and the same count, and finally hold again at the same pace and count until the square is complete.
- Repeat this breath cycle at least 3 times, always breathing and holding on a count of four.
If you feel uncomfortable holding your breath, take a small exhale and inhale before fully exhaling on a count of four, and reverse that sequence before inhaling for the four counts.
Sometimes a long sigh is exactly what we need to create a calming center.
- Start with a full exhale until you empty your lungs
- Inhale normally.
- Then begin exhaling a little longer than you inhale. Try counting as we did above with the deep breathing example: inhale for 4, but exhale for 6.
- Continue this way for at least 2 minutes.
- If you feel more comfortable with longer exhales, try inhaling for 4 but exhaling for 8.
More complex breathing techniques are best learned under the supervision of a certified professional.
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