We’ve all been holding our breath lately, haven’t we?
We’ve been inundated with information for the past few months that it’s our very breath that endangers us. Add the now routine wearing of masks, ever-changing CDC recommendations, and the constant activation of our fight or flight that comes with each new update or social media post, and it’s a wonder any of us can breathe normally, let alone take the time for some deep, calming breaths.
But now, more than ever, we need to do just that.
We are not immune to anxiety symptoms here at ARC, especially given the current state of our world. Just like our clients, we are dealing with the climate of uncertainty, sickness, potential danger, and stress, and just like with our clients, we have to stop and tell ourselves to breathe. To breathe with intention, taking time to inhale and exhale, breathing from our belly and not our chest, which will activate our stress response. We know how you feel because like you, we are feeling the effects of holding our breath for the past few months. When we check in with each other at the beginning of the week, one of the first things that we all mention is how we are cognizant of not breathing the way that we should and how it is wreaking havoc on our minds and our bodies.
We know that some people hear phrases like mindful breathing and begin to dismiss the practice as new-age hogwash, but the benefits of proper breathing are backed by science and proven to improve more than your mental health. In addition to helping ease anxiety symptoms, learning how to breathe properly can stop the entropy of our respiratory systems and increase our lung capacity at any age (James Nestor, Wallstreet Journal 2020) Simply put, learning proper breathing isn’t just for yogis and people who meditate. Learning how to breathe properly could improve the overall quality of your life!
When we talk about intentional, mindful breathing, we are talking about what we mentioned in the previous paragraph. Taking time to breathe in through your nose, slowly, for a count of five, and then breathing out through your nose or mouth for a slightly longer count. Try to do this for at least a minute and notice what happens. Are you feeling calmer? Are your shoulders relaxing? Did your jaw unclench? Are you finding it easier to concentrate?
Our breathing sends messages to our brain which then sends messages to our body. Every inhalation works on the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response. Every exhalation works on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” activities of the body. When the breath is short, shallow, or sporadic, one might experience fear, anxiety, poor health, and even disease because your sympathetic nervous system gets activated. When breathing long, deep breaths with rhythm, you can calm your brain, your body, and your behavior, because you’ve activated your parasympathetic nervous system.
Because of our breath and its ability to send messages to our body, when we find our anxiety symptoms ramping up, the first thing to do is stop and take a deep breath. And then another one, and maybe one or two more until you feel those symptoms begin to dissipate.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Great! One more thing that I need to learn to feel in control right now!” Do not fret. There are many resources to help you master proper deep breathing quickly. We often use the graph below to help our clients learn how to breathe properly. (Doesn’t that sound odd? Learning how to breathe properly?) The most important part of mindful breathing is to make sure that you are pulling air into your belly. Whenever you are taking time to try a breathing exercise, make sure that you put one hand on your belly so that you can feel it moving up and down. Belly breathing = relaxation breathing and chest breathing = stress breathing. Once you begin to know how proper breathing feels, you can begin working on inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, but as you are first learning proper breathing, good deep breaths are the goal.
Counting Your Breath
Proper breathing techniques will also help you to fall asleep at night. If you find your mind racing right before bed, place your hand on your belly and take several deep breaths. We know that as with anxiety itself, breathing techniques are not one size fits all, and we encourage our clients to try different methods that they find online or through apps in addition to ones we provide to them. We have found that some of our clients do well with using guided meditation apps before bed while others find them distracting, for example. The goal is to find your personal go-to so that when you find yourself being held hostage by your anxiety symptoms, deep breathing becomes second nature.
Learning how to properly breathe is one of the most important, and probably most overlooked aspects of our total health. During this time, when you feel as though so little that is within your control, take the time to learn some good mindful breathing techniques. They are easy to learn, they’re portable and above all they’re free!