“Breathing never works for me.” I hear this sentence all the time from anxious clients.
Have you ever tried breathing exercises to calm down and felt like it didn’t work? You might even have felt like it was making you more anxious or upset. More often than not, this happens when someone is trying to force a feeling of relaxation (which will never work), is using an improper breathing technique, or is breathing too quickly.
Why would changing my breathing help control my anxiety?
Since our breathing is regulated automatically and is not something we have to consciously think about, we frequently don’t notice the speed of our breath until it reaches some sort of extreme. Typically, someone feeling anxious is also taking quick, shallow breaths without realizing it. The average non-anxious person breathes 12-14 breaths per minute. However, most of my anxiety clients have a breathing speed closer to 20 or more breaths per minute at any given time of the day.
This type of breathing is a natural response to a perceived threat. When the brain senses danger, your body goes in to fight/flight/freeze mode. That quick, shallow breathing is important if you are about to run away from or fight an attacker. It is less helpful if the danger is an upcoming test, dealing with day-to-day stress, or managing your racing thoughts.
While faster breathing contributes to turning on the fight/flight/freeze response, slow, relaxed breathing at a rate of 10 breaths per minute or less turns on the brakes. Once that happens our anxiety reactions start to calm – heart rate decreases, sweat gland activity decreases, muscles start to relax, and the knot or butterfly sensation in our stomach starts to release or calm down. Our thoughts also respond to the slowed breathing – racing thoughts start to slow and feel more manageable and chaotic thoughts start to feel clearer and more focused.
Even when I try to breathe slowly, I still don’t feel calm-
For calming breathing techniques to be effective, it is helpful to understand a little bit about the breath’s role in calming down or amping up the nervous system. Breathing – just like our heart rate, skin temperature, and sweat gland activity – is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two branches – the sympathetic nervous system (the gas pedal), which triggers the fight/flight/freeze response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes).
Ironically, when we try to do anything, we engage the sympathetic nervous system. This means we are pushing on the gas pedal and not the brake. If you are breathing to try to relax, you will typically feel the same if not more anxious or stressed. The “trying cycle” tends to go something like this: you recognize you are feeling anxious so try to slow down or deepen your breaths. You don’t feel calm or relaxed, so you try harder. The more the breathing does not help, the harder you try and the more frustrated you become.
In addition to trying too hard, we can also end up overbreathing while trying to calm down. Overbreathing affects the ideal ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the body and can happen if you are breathing too quickly or using an incorrect technique while trying to breathe slowly.
So how do I breathe without trying?
It might seem like a small change, but think about allowing your breath to slow and allowing the calm feeling to come rather than trying to force it. Words really do affect our thoughts and how we approach something. Focusing on allowing versus trying makes a significant difference. Additionally, focus on breathing “low and slow.” The goal is not to take an enormous breath but simply to breathe in until you are comfortably full and breathe out until you are comfortably empty.
- When you inhale, breathe in through your nose and think about guiding the air in to your belly rather than in to your chest.
- When you exhale, blow the air out through your mouth like you are blowing through a straw.
- To help focus your mind away from trying to relax, focus on counting while you breathe.
- Breathe in to the count of 4 and out to the count 6. This will have you breathing at a speed of 6 breaths per minute – most people’s ideal speed for calming the nervous system.
- Once you have the slow rhythm going, allow your mind to relax by noticing the feel of the cold air going in through your nose and the feel of the warm air as it leaves your mouth.
- Notice the feel of your belly as it moves up and down.
Breathing techniques that focus on the breath itself rather than on trying to feel a certain way will always be more effective. In addition, engaging the mind and body at the same time by counting or noticing how something feels in your body helps direct your thoughts away from unhelpful thought patterns.
Elizabeth Wilkins, LMFT, LPC, BCN, BCB