Anxiety and breathing: there’s a strong connection.
I invite you now to sit back and observe your breath. Is it fast and shallow? Deep and slow? Flowing or faltering?
Along my anxiety adventure, I’ve noticed the mind and breath are bosom buddies. Sometimes, I realise I’m barely breathing at all! But as soon as I focus on my breath, I feel unblocked and less flighty. In an instant.
In my daily yoga practice, it’s even more obvious. As the breath moves, the body moves. We inhale in some asanas, and exhale in others. There’s flow, rhythm, harmony. Which is why yoga gets a big thumbs up for managing mental illness.
Today I’d like to share some easy, awesome breathwork exercises to calm your mind.
But let’s start with an understanding of the anxiety-breath connection:
Shortness of breath
This is a biggie when it comes to anxiety symptoms. Many of us feel shortness of breath – sometimes every day.
You may feel you can’t breathe, or you’re being smothered or suffocated, or you can’t catch your breath. Other time, you may struggle to breathe deeply, stuck in a shallow space.
We want to avoid this, especially as it can bring on a panic attack.
Side note: if shortness of breath is a new symptom, go see your doctor. They can check it isn’t a sign of something else.
Panic attacks and hyperventilation
In a panic attack, you may think you’re not getting enough air. So you start to take deeper breaths. But guess what? That feeling actually stems from too much oxygen!
When we breathe in excess oxygen, our body freaks out. “Waah! I need more air!” it cries. So you breathe deeper and faster. But then you don’t get enough carbon dioxide. And this is what brings on a racing heart, lightheadedness and weakness.
Exercise 1: Slow breathing
During a panic attack, the best thing you can do is breathe more slowly – and take smaller breaths from your tummy.
I know it may feel wrong, but it’ll help top up your CO2 levels and bring your breath back into balance. The racing heart and lightheadedness will also soon lift.
Here’s how to do it: sit comfortably in a chair, or lie down on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Pop one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly.
Inhale normally. Hold your breath. Count to 10. Exhale and tell yourself “calm” or “relax”.
Now, close your mouth and slowly inhale through your nose for 3 seconds. Then breathe out loudly and strongly through your mouth for 3 seconds. Again, say “calm” or “relax” when you exhale.
Check your tummy rises and falls during this practice. Keep doing it for a few more minutes. You can do this as often as you like during the day, and build up to 20 minutes (I like to break my 20 minutes up into 4 x 5 minute sessions across the day).
Still worried you’re not getting enough air? Once your breathing is under control, tell yourself “I am safe and can breathe freely.”
Exercise 2: Power breathing
This one really works wonders.
All you have to do is exhale longer than you inhale. So if you inhale for a count of 4 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.
If you’re overly anxious, start with two breaths in and four breaths out. Then work your way up to 8 seconds in, 16 seconds out.
This technique works by transforming the ‘sympathetic’ mode (the one that activates the fight-flight-freeze response) into the ‘parasympathetic’ mode (also called ‘rest and digest’).
Try it and see. I find my heart rate slows down, my muscles relax, and I’m even ready for a nap!
Exercise 3: Alternate nostril breathing
If you’ve done pranayama in a yoga class, you’ll already know this technique. Called ‘nadi shodhana’ in Sanskrit, the practice involves breathing through each nostril.
Take the thumb and forefinger, and use them to block your right nostril.
Breathe in through your left nostril. Pause your breathe and block the left nostril.
Breathe out through your right nostril.
Breathe in through your right nostril.
Close your right nostril.
Breathe out through your left nostril.
Breathe in through your left nostril.
Close your left nostril.
Breathe out through your right nostril.
That’s it! You simply repeat these steps for a couple more minutes – until you notice a shift in your breath and body. Sometimes, you may need to practice for longer until your anxiety subsides. And it will. Pinky promise!
So now you have some easy breathing exercises to start practising right away – or whenever you feel anxious.
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