Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
by B. Imei Hsu, RN, LMHC, Artist
Anxiety is a common feature of modern life. Anxiety is more often a fear of something that has not happened – and may not even happen at all. Contrast the difference between the real fear of receiving an eviction notice on one’s door after failing to pay the mortgage for four consecutive months (cause and effect fear), and the anxiety of that same situation, only you actually possess enough money to pay the mortgage. Generally, Anxiety is a problem when your responses exceed what one would expect in the circumstances you face. In other words, you have an over-response. Anxieties can show up as a complex and chronic repetition of responses to the unknown, or they can take on the shape of specific phobia so powerful that you develop palpitations, diaphoresis, dysphoria, dizziness, and nausea just thinking about the phobia. Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can leave one feeling paralyzed, unable to tap one’s usual cognitive and physical skills to get oneself back to a place of safety and security. Other than using narcotics and sleep medication, are there other ways help people encounter their feelings of anxiety? The answer may lie in attacking anxiety with breathing.
Addictive Reactions to Anxiety
If you have ever experienced a moment of absolute terror, I wouldn’t blame you for trying to write off the power of breathing. What could a breath do that couldn’t be replaced by any number of the following activities:
* drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes
* ingesting hard drugs
* taking a hit of marijuana, known for its relaxing effects
* taking prescription medication for Anxiety and Panic Disorder, such as Xanax
* eating high carb “comfort foods” such as bread or pasta in large quantities
The truth: all of the above activities could be used to temporarily medicate anxious symptoms. With an honest and informed conversation about each action, you will find there are short and long term consequences with each one. If we remove these activities, we unearth the repetitive and addictive patterns that lie underneath, such as addictions to overworking, stubborn rituals of sleeplessness and wasting time, overeating and binging on junk food or low-return foods, self-medicating in lieu of offering the body what it needs to function, and choosing dissociation over active presence. Many of us would rather flee to avoidance rather than face our own addictive processes that lie below an anxious surface. In that sense, there is less “wrong” with you, other than you are being human, and you’re probably wasting precious personal resources through avoidance.
Breathing: The Key To Grounding Presence
While breathing techniques alone may not adequately address a full-blown panic attack, Deep Breathing, Meditation, and the two associated with Guided Imagery have all been shown to have a profound affect in managing general feelings of anxiety and stress. Unlike the options listed above, deep breathing has no known side effects nor known negative consequences. Deep breathing is not addictive, does not cost money to employ, is mobile and available anywhere and everywhere, and has no dosing limits.
How does it work? When we feel anxious and stressed, our bodies kick into “fight or flight” mode. Our minds may be flooded with thoughts of worry and worst-case scenarios that repeat until we have resolved the problem, both the real one and the emotional one. Anxiety becomes this feedback loop, like a six-second Vine.co video on Twitter, and it usually continues to play unless you hit the stop button.
One way to press the “stop” button on this anxiety loop is to take a deep breath into the belly, and slowly exhale, repeating this process at least ten times. This serves a few purposes:
1. Sends oxygen to the brain so you can think clearly
2. Stops shallow and fast breathing (flight/fight) for calming and regulating breathing
3. Signals your mind that you are in a safe place
4. Tells the mind to reduce distraction and over-stimulating data
5. Paves the way to receive instruction from the Body on what it needs to function effectively
By employing deep breathing with Mindfulness Meditation techniques, research such as that of John Kabutt-Zinn and others have shown how breathing and meditation strengthens immune systems against colds and flus, can be used in feedback treatment to reduce anxiety and stress after cardiac surgery, and reduces the symptoms of anxiety and stress among those who participate in Mindfulness practices for a minimum of eight weeks.
Deep breathing, Meditation, and Guided Imagery have never been instituted to replace aggressive Western medical intervention on the treatment of Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder. Instead, they can be easily taught, cheaply employed, and repeated throughout the lifespan without limits and without medical supervision after the techniques are learned, and they do not interfere with medical treatment when needed. You don’t have to have a license or a prescription to try breathing when you feel anxious!
For your listening pleasure, I’ve created a short SoundCloud audio clip describing and demonstrating “How To Breathe” < — Take a listen.
Does It Work?
Don’t laugh in your hands (or don’t tell me about it!) when I tell you that I’m a skeptic when I step outside of the realm of math and science. At some point, if you want to know if Deep Breathing and some combination of Mindfulness Meditation and Guided Imagery will work for you, you might read the research, you might crowdsource your questions, and then it will come time to try it yourself. There is a wealth of resources on this subject available on the Internet, as well as Youtube videos, CD’s and DVD’s, books, and workshops. Still there are few things better than getting to the point where you understand you have nothing more to lose and everything to gain by trying it for yourself.
I personally never thought I’d encounter anything in my own life that seriously needed focused attention and deep breathing. And then I remembered: I am deathly afraid of swimming in open water. I’m not afraid of being in the water itself. I have swam in the ocean and even surfed, just not very far from shore. While I’m in the water, I feel stiff, I get a feeling of dread and doom, and I sometimes replay a traumatic event from my childhood where I was nearly drowned in our backyard swimming pool. I have an event trigger that is real and crystal clear. All attempts at getting in the water and enjoying the process of swimming have been lukewarm at best. My breathing often becomes shallow, and I’ll experience a sense of defeat after the first 30 minutes.
That is, until last week.
I’ve been in the pool of the ProClub in Bellevue, WA nearly a dozen times, breaststroking back and forth. No one can see how I actually FEEL about swimming. I feel anxious, jittery, and sometimes nauseated as well as dizzy.
Last week, I spent a little time wrapped up in warm towels in a quiet area of the club. With eyes closed, I practiced Deep Breathing for a couple of minutes, centering my breath and sending waves of calm and control to the region just below the belly button (approximately the second chakra in the Ayurvedic system of thought). Focusing on my breath, I examined without judgement my thoughts about swimming, and one by one let them each go, reminding myself that this is what the brain does — create thoughts and emotions that rise and fall as easily and consistently as ocean waves. Finally, I imagined swimming in the ocean off the shore of Maui, feeling calm and relaxed, completely safe, and surrounded by friends (love), a swimming noodle and can (safety), and sunshine (happy warmth). By the time I actually arose from my meditation and slipped into the pool, my brain was primed to encounter my usual anxious feelings and body responses with what I had just “programmed” my brain with the meditation exercise and calming breath. For the first time, I actually noticed the strip of paint on the bottom of the pool lap lane. “Oh!” my brain thought, “That’s how people figure out if they are swimming straight!”
Should I be surprised that ten minutes into my swim session, I was trying freestyle swimming for the first time in my life? The answer is: yes, of course it is surprising, but not unexpected! The breathing calmed me down enough to allow the other “tape” to run in my head, replacing years and years of illogical and painful anxiety about swimming and drowning. By being focused and calm, I could execute the head knowledge I had learned from observing swimming techniques. But best of all, I actually found myself enjoying the act of swimming: the thrum-y rhythm of the kicking, watching my elbow overhead while I took a deep and delicious breath of air, and the feel of the water as my hand cut and displaced it as my body propelled forward. While it might not have been elegant for a first try, I would call it a successful attempt.
Now it’s your turn. Do you or someone you know struggle habitually with Anxiety and stress? Have you tried Deep Breathing as a way to attack the symptoms of anxiety? If not, why not?
In the next weeks, I’ll be posting several free breathing and meditation sound clips that you can use at home to help guide you on using breathing to help with anxiety. I’d be honored if you would share it with others at work, at home, or in your social circles. If you experience progress with using Deep Breathing for anxiety, we’d love to hear from you. Or just click on one of our “share” buttons below this post.
Take a breath and enjoy!