How Breathing Helps Anxiety and Panic AttacksSep 22, 2022
Do you have anxiety or panic attacks?
Perhaps the reason you are interested in this topic is because anxiety is somehow present for you and you want to move on, to return to a life in which you can participate more fully.
You might have been told to "just take a deep breath" or perhaps you felt even more anxiety observing that it's hard to take a full breath in and your breath might feel shallow and fast.
You probably have already experienced that no matter how much advice you get to think differently, it doesn't really help. That's because the anxiety might be wired in as a way of being that is more primary than thought.
Anxiety still comes on.
You know that you don't want a life of tranquilizers or beta blockers.
You Can Change- You Can Come Out of Anxiety
You can change. Both right now and over the longer term, you can re-wire your brain and nervous system if you develop a simple daily practice of conscious breathing.
As you continue to read to the end of this article, let's practice breathing in a simple pattern that will change your state immediately and as we go on, I'll explain how this works.
Exhale twice as long as your inhalation
Breathing through your nose, inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of eight.
Place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your belly. As you inhale your right hand should move first and then your left hand. On exhalations see what feels natural, perhaps the right hand comes in first, or perhaps the left.
The Pear-Cone Wave For Good Diaphragm Breathing
As you breathe in, feel your lower ribs and abdomen expand. Notice if your belly pulls in as you inhale. Does it? If so, take note because you might have extra learning ahead which I'll get to shortly. You can imagine as if you have a huge pear inside your torso, pushing down on an inhalation. As the breath rises up you can imagine a cone opening up inside your lower ribs and expanding to the top. The pear and then the cone. The two when your breath becomes smooth flow like a wave from bottom to top.
If this making your inhalation easier and you can go further, you can inhale to 5 and exhale to 10 and keep going to 6/12 or 7/14; always making your exhalation double the length of your inhalation.
Do you notice how you feel differently already? There are several variations of conscious breathing that can stave off a panic attack, and lower anxiety and stress levels. Let's take a look at how they work so you can find the right one for you and why you want to spend some extra time in practice if your navel pulls back when you inhale.
Why Breathing Helps Anxiety
When you feel anxiety or stress your nervous system responds by getting you ready to either run from danger or fight an opponent that could be coming for your life. Your nervous system is doing its job perfectly and has adapted this response over millions of years to keep organisms alive. So if the tiger is really coming for you, you can feel the stress and run faster. A few things happen when this kicks in:
- Your pupils dilate to let in more light
- Your heart speeds up (you will need to run, right?)
- Your midsection tightens (in case you might get hit, you need to brace for impact)
- Your digestion slows down or stops.
- Breathing up into the secondary muscles of breathing in the neck and shoulders and away from the primary muscle of respiration: the diaphragm.
- Your breathing speeds up because your nervous system is anticipating that because you are going to be running or fighting, you'll have increased energy needs and more CO2 being generated.
Mind = Respiration = Mind
The problem is, we are responding to mentally created images which feel life threatening but they are in all likelihood, not. We don’t actually need to be physically running or fighting. So with the increased breathing speed, CO2 is exhaled out faster than your body is producing it and that, exacerbates all of the other stress that you are experiencing plus making it harder for your body to distribute oxygen.
The Breath Fix for Anxiety and Panic Attacks
What we did in exhaling twice as long as your inhalation is to preserve more CO2. As CO2 rises, your vascular system dilates, your heart rate slows down and your rest and digest function starts to kick in, moving you back into a more balanced state. By breathing and imagining the pear and the cone, you are activating more use from your diaphragm in breathing and less of the secondary muscles in the neck and shoulders. This is a more efficient way to breathe and is wired up with the side of the nervous system that you need if you want to come out of panic and anxiety.
The Scientific Studies on How Breathing Helps Anxiety and Panic Attacks
In a 2017 study, highly anxious people were assigned to take a course in slow diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation. After eight weeks of twice daily practice, they reported feeling less anxious compared to a group that didn’t receive the training. They also showed physical signs of reduced anxiety: lower heart rate, slower breathing, and lower skin conductivity.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers announced to two groups of participants that they were going to get shocked with electricity. One group was taught to breathe slowly at about 8 breaths per minute before getting shocked (which were never actually given), while the second group did not get any instruction. The slow breathers reported feeling less anxious while anticipating the pain and also showed lower anxiety on a physical level, as measured by sweat and blood flow to the fingers.
Following up on this research, another study tested participants reaction to induced stress with three possible breathing patterns: fast inhaling with slow exhaling; slow inhaling with fast exhaling; or evenly paced inhaling and exhaling. The fast inhaling with slow exhaling (2 seconds in, 8 seconds out) was the most effective to relieve physical and mental anxiety. *
In a 2017 study, researchers found that alternate nostril breathing as compared to breath awareness was about three times as effective at reducing people’s feelings of anxiety.
There was also the British study done using a 12-week yoga breathing class for highly anxious people which concluded that participants felt “more in control,” and that “anxiety doesn’t feel debilitating anymore.” One participant described big changes in confidence, mindfulness, and spirituality and a greater ability to relax. Three participants who had been unable to work for many years were able to return to paid work, moving on from the debilitation of anxiety.
So two lessons come out of this for you- one is you want to elongate the breath, particularly the exhalation. Two is that you want to use more of your diaphragm in breathing than the neck and shoulders. 1It is widely known by neuroscientists that our emotional state impacts our breathing. And slow deep breathing can help you avoid the fight-flight response that comes when you are freaking out.
The 1:2 technique, breathing out for double the length of your inhalation is definitely something you should keep in your toolkit because its easy and quick. Another one I like very much is Resonance Frequency Breathing which is a gentle yet potent method of breathing at a rate of about 5.5 breaths per minute which shows clinically verifiable effects in lowering stress, increasing heart rate variability and stopping chronic inflammation.
If you would like to learn more about these, I have a course called the 3 must-know breathing techniques where I will send you a breathing lesson a day for three days and it is completely free! Learn more here.
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