Self-help for Anxiety
All of us have been anxious at some point. For some, it is a more frequent and intense experience. Anxiety can cause hyperventilation and panic attacks, among other debilitating symptoms. These symptoms are associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response of the sympathetic nervous system. One self-healing solution is to learn to practice breathing exercises for anxiety.
Breathing exercises have a calming and restorative effect. This is because such exercises stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which places the body and mind in a state of rest. They can thereby lessen the symptoms of anxiety to a considerable degree. In fact, breathing exercises are regarded by many as an important component in the treatment of anxiety, stress and even depression.
In their book The Healing Power of the Breath Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D. argue that:
“By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body, a language the brain understands and to which it responds. Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior.”
For powerful results, deep breathing exercises are very effective. Yes, in the middle of an attack of severe anxiety it can feel impossible to take a deep breath.
Ever Been in a Panic?
It’s quite a scary sensation and only adds to your sense of panic. But continuing to breathe shallowly will only exacerbate your anxiety. However, there are simple methods that will enable you to ‘catch your breath’ and practice deep breathing even when you are struggling with anxiety.
Breathing is the most powerful thing you can do to release stress. It not only quiets the body, it quiets the mind. It slows the heart (depending upon which kind of breathing you are doing) and it causes increased oxygen to flow through the body which will increase the clarity about the situation. When this occurs you may naturally change the way you are experiencing or framing the upset. If you can do that you will no longer be as anxious, naturally.
You’ve probably heard that advocates of deep breathing exercises advise you to breathe with your belly, rather than your chest muscles. In fact, it’s the tendency to breathe with only your chest muscles that causes those nasty chest pains during a panic attack – it’s not your heart.
As for your rapid heartbeat – that’s also caused by hyperventilation rather than heart problems. So how do you overcome this bad habit of breathing with the wrong set of muscles? Sit upright in a comfortable position and try any one of the following breathing exercises for stress and anxiety…
This exercise is an example of what we refer to as diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
Step 1: Place one hand on your belly and the other in the middle of your chest (on your sternum). This will provide you with the biofeedback you need to determine which muscles you are using to breathe.
Step 2: Sigh gently out your mouth and feel your upper body relax.
Step 3: Wait a few seconds before extending your belly and inhaling slowly through your mouth. Focus on using your stomach muscles on the inhalation and do not strain your chest or other upper body muscles.
Step 4: Pause for a few seconds (for however long feels most comfortable for you).
Step 5: Exhale gently through your mouth, pulling in your belly as you do so.
Step 6: Continue to practice this method of slow, purposeful deep breathing.
This is also one of the more effective breathing exercises for stress.
This is a slightly more advanced version of more common breathing exercise (like the one above).
Step 1: Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of 5 heartbeats. Breathe in with your belly first, followed by your chest.
Step 2: Hold your breath for a count of 7 heartbeats.
Step 3: Exhale gently through your mouth for a count of 9 heartbeats.
Step 4: Repeat this process at least 10 times.
This exercise requires some practice. However, once you have got the hang of it, it can be very useful to stabilize a panic attack. Please note that it is not recommended if you suffer from any heart conditions.
This exercise involves some imagination and visualization. The technique is referred to as breath moving. You imagine directing your breath to different parts of the body.
Step 1: Inhale slowly. Imagine that your breath is moving to the crown of your head.
Step 2: Exhale gently. Imagine that your breath is moving to the base of your spine, your sitting bones, and your perineum.
Step 3: Repeat the first two steps at least 10 times.
And now for something a little different… Alternate nostril breathing is relaxing. However, it brings about the type of calm that will energize you and enhance your focus. So this is not one to try when you want to fall asleep.
Step 1: Take your right thumb and close your right nostril. Inhale deeply through your left nostril.
Step 2: Hold your left nostril closed with your ring finger. Release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril.
Step 3: Keeping your fingers as they are, inhale deeply through your right nostril.
Step 4: Close your right nostril with your thumb. Release your ring finger and exhale through your left nostril.
Step 5: Repeat this process until a sense of calm and balance is restored.
This method is quite advanced and might require some practice. It gets rid of stress and anxiety, enabling you to shake off stale energy. Again, not one to try when you need to sleep. This is the double espresso of deep breathing.
Step 1: Start with a long slow inhalation through the nose.
Step 2: Contract your lower belly to create a quick powerful exhalation through the nose.
Step 3: Repeat this process 10 times. You want to aim for each breath (inhalation and exhalation) to take 1 to 2 seconds.
Hopefully these exercises will bring you some relief when your anxiety kicks into gear. Meditation is another very helpful thing to add to your life with these exercises to relieve anxiety. But remember that deep breathing has many health benefits other than simply alleviating panic. You might also find that deep breathing has a significant preventative effect in your life. You will need to practice these exercises on a regular basis to get the full benefit. So why not start right now? And inhaaaaale…