Breathing Through Anxiety


I recently read a very fascinating book called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor. He is an investigative journalist who in this case was willing to undergo some radical experiences to explore the whole topic of breathing. If you get it as an audio-book, at the end there is a series of guided breathing exercises which I have found very helpful, personally and in my work with clients.

Whether you would get this book or not, here is a breath practice that may help with anxiety or panic. I am not saying it “will” help. Just, that it may, especially if you practice it a bit when you are feeling fine, then it’s easier to put into use when you need it. It’s useful when you find yourself “anxiety-breathing”, when the in and out cycle of your breath is fast and shallow. If you are having a panic attack you may additionally feel dizzy, sweaty, very scared and have “doom” feelings and thoughts.

Even though these states can be scary, you can intervene in them and help yourself. If you try various strategies and can’t effect any change, get yourself to your local emergency room.

Back to the drawing board: the exercise is very simple: You count 1-2-3-4 slowly on the in-breath. Then 1-2-3-4-5-6 on the out-breath. Repeat this cycle six to ten times. The single count needs to last around a second or more. The breathing needs to be nasal, not open-mouth. It is used in yoga and in helping people recover from breathlessness after covid and for other conditions. I find the easiest way to do it involves saying “IN” or “OUT” instead of numeral “1″ on each half of the cycle. So: “IN-2-3-4” and “OUT-2-3-4-5-6.” If you want, you can make the out-breath a bit longer, as you familiarize yourself with it, and see what works best.

The reason this breath pattern may be helpful, if you can use it when feeling panicked, is that the in-breath and the out-breath have different functions for the central nervous system (CNS).

To explain: the CNS has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic system supports arousal, as in: rising to whatever difficulty or challenge you need to handle: everything from the proverbial bear in the forest to the screaming baby to the police car driving up to you with its lights flashing. The sympathetic branch of the CNS helps us handle the stress event. When that’s over and you want to calm down, recover, relax again, the parasympathetic system takes over in order to bring the CNS back into equilibrium after stress. It helps us de-stress, relax, sleep and generally let down again. The in-breath is more strongly related to the sympathetic branch of the CNS. The out-breath is related to the parasympathetic branch.

So, when we make the out-breath longer than the inbreath we are supporting the parasympathetic system to do its job of calming us, helping us relax and re-achieve a sense of peace and ease. If we keep going with this breath pattern when we are in a state of anxiety or panic, the breath can really help to settle the nervous system down again. I would practice the recommended cycle for a few rounds, then give yourself a break to return to your current “given” breathing pattern, then resume the 4/6 cycle again. This way of practicing, by moving between the exercise and whatever your currently normal breathing is, may help you reduce the potential stress of “trying to de-stress”. This cycle allows you to check in with how your anxiety is currently doing and then resume the helping strategy. Don’t expect quick success, just keep practicing. By doing so you are training your body to regain its capacity to calm itself. 

The biggest challenge to such a practice is to get to square one: meaning, it’s hard in the middle of panic or anxiety to remember there is something you can do and then to engage the strategy. Panic tends to be overwhelming by the nature of the beast. It helps if someone else (a partner or friend) can remind you there are things you can do to intervene with the nasty experience. Other strategies that are commonly recommended, are: Standing up and sensing your feet on the floor, walking around, attending to a sense of grounding; walking slowly; drinking cold water; breathing into a brown paper bag…

Another strategy is to remind yourself “panic will pass”, it’s temporary, and even if you feel like you can’t breath or get enough oxygen, you are actually getting enough oxygen to live!!

Good luck and keep practicing!

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