Breathing is the key to everything. When I work with clients who struggle with anxiety, I give them my best stuff first. I show them my absolute go-to, number one, secret sauce method for reducing anxiety. When I show them, they usually look at me dumbfounded…. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Breathing.”
They don’t seem to believe me, and I’m admittedly a little embarrassed to float something so simple, but with all the training I’ve had in mindfulness, psychotherapy, and psychophysiology, it really gets down to that. Breathing.
How we breathe
Most of us breathe too quickly and too shallow for good physical health. I don’t find it uncommon to discover people who breathe 16-18 breaths per minute while sitting quietly.
When I ask people to show me a good, deep breath, they almost always expand the upper chest and work really hard to fill that cavity (scrunching the shoulders and putting lots of tension into the next as a result). With all that bone and muscle in the upper torso, it can certainly feel like we’re working hard.
How we should breathe
A more relaxing, efficient method is to focus on the lower torso. Allow the diaphragm to descend, which causes the belly to expand. While air doesn’t actually travel down there, we say “Breathe into your belly” to create a reference. I’ve had athletes, musicians, and yoga teachers struggle with this concept at first, but it can improve with practice.
We knew how to breathe correctly as babies - we just forgot.Click To Tweet
We don’t want to over-breathe in terms of depth or frequency, as that could cause hyperventilation. Breathing should induce calm, so we need to find a frequency and depth that facilitates this. For most adults, a pace of 6 breath cycles per minute is optimal, although it can take practice to get there. An easy is to use a timer or watch, breathe in for 5 seconds, then out for 5 seconds, as smoothly as possibly. Work to gain control of those muscles and the flow of air – this can take some practice.
Benefit: Parasympathetic Activation
Mindful, slow breathing invokes the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), especially on the exhale. This is the part of us that counters the fight-or-flight Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The experience or anticipation of a stressor puts us into sympathetic activation, creating a host of cascading effects. Check out Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for a fantastic explanation. While the SNS is well-suited to help us fight or flee the occasional threat, it is not designed to manage the onslaught of stress response experiences. (Hint: At some level , all threats are tigers lunging at us.) Increasing PNS activation helps offset the ways repeated SNS activation leads to chronic anxiety.
Benefit: Heart Rate Variability
Breathing this way also promotes Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Our hearts are supposed to speed up when we inhale and slow down when we exhale. High HRV correlates with good physical and emotional health. The good news is that the paradigm is a two-way street. While anxiety can lower HRV, we can work directly on HRV to also reduce anxiety and increase stress resilience. We do this through mindful breathing. The good folks at Heart Math make an excellent home training device for HRV. You can check it out here.
When should we do this?
Do you have to breathe this way all the time? No, that’s not practical. But, there are two times I recommend practicing mindful breathing. Some research suggests that even 2-3 minutes a day can have a positive effect.
- In times of stress. When you feel you’re about to react instead of respond, or when you feel your blood pressure start to rise, it’s time to take a time-out and engage in a few moneys of mindful breathing. Not only will this give you a chance to consider your words and actions, it will also invoke the PNS, which will help counteract activation of the stress response.
- Regularly, in between stressors. THIS is the real secret sauce! Breathing and coping skills in anxious moments are only so helpful, because the SNS has already gotten into the game. Regular breathing practice (I recommend multiple times a day) will help lower trait anxiety. Think of it as loosening your internal psychological trampoline. That way, when things happen, they don’t bounce as high off that trampoline. It makes you less reactive.
If you want to get more information, and possibly work together to lower your anxiety levels, improve your stress resilience, and reach new levels of performance, I encourage you to contact me.