When managing anxiety, there are lots of different techniques that together can make a real difference. One of the simplest starting points is looking at your breathing.
How do you breathe?
Not everyone breathes at the same rate naturally. Have a check right now of how many breaths you take in and out in a 6-second interval. Multiply this by 10 and you will have a rough estimate of how many breaths you take in a minute. You might like to compare your breathing rate when you are relaxed to when you are feeling more stressed. It’s not unusual for us to increase our rate of breathing when we are feeling under pressure. Although this is a natural reaction, overbreathing can increase our experience of anxiety.
Overbreathing can exacerbate anxiety
Both shallow panting and gulping in large amounts of air may affect your natural balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Your body can register this overbreathing as a sign that you are under threat, setting off a ‘fight or flight’ response. The sympathetic nervous system is activated (part of the autonomic nervous system, therefore automatic!) and felt throughout the whole body. Many organs in the body react aiming to protect you from your perceived danger. Although overbreathing may not be the start of anxious feelings, it can prolong an anxious state.
What does anxiety feel like in my body?
You may notice other sensations when you are anxious because the sympathetic nervous system affects multiple organs in your body. These include an increased heart rate, dry mouth, pins and needles in your fingers and toes, feeling hot or cold, sweating, clammy hands or digestive issues.
How do we use breath to our benefit?
When we bring our breathing back to what is natural for us in our relaxed state, our body can switch off the ‘fight or flight’ response. The parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite system to the sympathetic nervous system) can restore the body to its natural state of rest.
Focus on the exhale
You may have heard people say ‘now I can exhale’ when they are feeling a sense of relief. Breathing exercises often centre on slowing the exhalation as this allows your body to release tension. Focusing on the breath may also reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed that can accompany anxiety. It can narrow our focus and bring our minds back to the present to reduce external overload if we are processing issues of the past or worries into the future.
The beauty of using breathing means you have a simple and effective tool to counter anxiety available to you at all times. Take the time to notice your breathing patterns and do what feels right for you to help bring yourself a sense of calm when you need it.
Wendy Roncolato and Prue Foster