Breathing is a funny thing, we’ve been doing it since we were born and generally don’t think much about it. But in terms of anxiety management, gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanics and role of the breath is extremely useful. Jon Kabat-Zinn related that in a survey of several hundred patients who had completed a stress reduction program, the majority rated ‘the breathing’ as the single most important thing they learned.
Here is a little experiment:
Either sitting up straight or standing, place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth 3x. Notice if either of your hands moves more than the other with your inhales and exhales.
If you notice one hand moving more than the other, try adjusting your breath to get the other hand to move more. See if you notice differences in the two breathing experiences.
If you notice the hand on your stomach moving the most you are likely doing more diaphragmatic or belly breathing which is associated with relaxation. If you notice the hand on your chest moving more you may be shallow breathing which is more associated with stress and vigilance.
Neither is good or bad, the different ways of breathing have different functions and different results. On a very basic level deeper, belly breathing correlates with the parasympathetic nervous system and gives the body signals to relax. Shallow, chest breathing correlates with the sympathetic nervous system getting us ready for fight, flight or freeze.
Learning to cultivate belly/diaphragmatic breathing is an important skill for anxiety management, helping us to tune into our bodies and decrease reactivity. Yet for many people with high anxiety focusing on breath can initially create more anxiety. This reaction isn’t that surprising given that in anxious states we are more prone to try to control things so attempting to let go of and experiment with our habitual way of breathing can at first feel uncomfortable, even scary.
If you are new to exploring your breath, it can be good to start slowly. You could try taking 3-5 belly breaths, like you did in the initial experiment, 1-2x a day for a couple of weeks. Don’t expect it to change right away, shifting breathing patterns take time, the muscles and nervous system need time to adjust.
If you find it too difficult to approach on your own talking to a yoga or meditation instructor, an anxiety counsellor, or some doctors can be helpful.
I would love to hear what your experience has been with breathe and anxiety management. Please feel free to comment below.