Including Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Medical experts and alternative healers as well as the US Military are focusing attention on the many health benefits of what is called belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing. I like to refer to this way of breathing as natural “At-Ease Breathing“ because it is the way babies and people who are relaxed and at ease breathe naturally. This way of breathing is characterized as slow, rhythmic and deep. It begins with an inhale that expands our “belly” first as we pull air into our lungs, expanding our chest and rib cage. As we exhale, air leaves our body and belly contracts.
When we become stressed, frightened or panicked our breath changes, however. It becomes shorter, shallower and more rapid. Or we hold our breath, taking only short sporadic gulps. If we live in a chronic state of stress and anxiety, as so many of us do, our breathing becomes habitually reversed. As we breathe into our chest and our belly contacts on the inhale. This keeps our breaths shorter and thus demands that we breathe more rapidly and shallowly. This can also becomes a habit if we’ve been taught to hold our stomachs in tight and flat to be strong or attractive.
An anxious or uptight person typically uses their shoulders rather than their belly and diaphragm to move air in and out of their lungs, emptying too much carbon dioxide out of the blood. This upsets the body’s balance and can prolong feelings of anxiety and make the symptoms of stress worse, i.e. (bullets here)
- Chest tightness
- Constant fatigue
- Faintness and lightheadedness
- Feelings of panic
- Heart palpitations
- Muscular aches, twitches or stiffness
- Tingling, numb and cold hands and face
Doctors have also discovered that, as we get older, our lungs loose elasticity and tissue, muscles and bones change resulting in a tendency to breathe less deeply. This opens us up to pneumonia and other lung infections.
At whatever age, shallow breathing can lead to: (bullets here)
A decreased energy level
Loss of mental focus
- Poor digestion
- Lack of restorative sleep
- Increased blood pressure levels
- Lowering of natural endorphins (feel good hormones)
- Scientific studies clearly show that restoring our breath to its natural state has many positive health benefits at any age. For example doctors and mental health professionals find that breathing naturally sooths the autonomic nervous system and helps to: (bullets here)
- Reduce stress
- Improve relaxation
- Manage anxiety, asthma, chronic fatigue, and anxiety attacks
- Overcome fears, anxiety and panic attacks
- Manage chronic pain, asthma, insomnia and some skin conditions
- Reduce high blood pressure
Check in with your current breathing habit
For the most part we don’t pay attention to how with breath. Fortunately we do it automatically. But if we’ve developed a habit of shallow reversed breathing it means we will have to start paying attention to how we breathe to reap the many rewards of returning to a natural at-ease rhythm. But making this change need not be difficult or prolonged.
Start by noticing your current pattern of breathing.
- Stand or lie on your back and gently place one hand palm down on your belly with the center of your hand touching your navel and the other palm down on your chest. Then just breathe as you normally would.
- Notice if your belly rises and expands as your take a breath, after which your chest expands. Or does your belly remain flat while your shoulders rise and only your chest expands as you inhale. On the exhale you should feel your stomach sink inward, or does it expand outward.
- Alternatively you might stand in front of a mirror and notice not only what your hands are telling you about your breath but also watch to see if your shoulders are rising when you breathe in. When we breathe from our belly our shoulders do not need to do the work.
- If your tummy is not rising as you breathe, please do not judge or criticize yourself for the way you are breathing. Your breath is reversed but you are fine learning to return to a pattern of natural at-ease breathing.
When doing this check-in, some people find that their breathing is natural and at-ease. If that includes you, good. You are probably not stressed or anxious at the time. But do this same check in when you are feeling, anxious or panicked. Your pattern will most likely be different.
Practice natural At-Ease Breathing until it becomes a habit
In order to bring your breathing back to a natural at-east rhythm, you will need to set aside a small amount of time each day to consciously practice breathing differently until it becomes a new habit. Here’s how:
Find a time when you are not under any immediate time pressure or stress. Before you begin, do a quick check of how feel, noticing both the state of your body and your mood.
- Then again stand or lie down and gently place one hand palm down on your belly with the center of your hand touching your navel and one palm down on your chest. As you inhale, let go of your stomach muscles and consciously let your belly rise. It may help to exaggerate outward the movement of your stomach a little until you get a feel for it. If you are lying down, you can put a small object on your stomach like a book or box of tissues to provide visual feedback that your stomach is raising. Then notice that your chest will as your lungs fill, followed by an exhale during which your stomach will sink inward. Note: This is not about taking long, deep gulping breaths. Your breath will deepen automatically. It will not be forced or labored, simply natural and comfortable.
- After breathing in this way for a few minutes, take note again of how you feel, checking in with both your body and your mood. Usually, as you increase the oxygen your body is getting from At-Ease Breathing, your respiration and heart rate will naturally decrease. Blood pressure and muscle tension will also decrease and you will notice yourself feeling more relaxed, calm and peaceful.
- Please do not become frustrated or critical of yourself if you have difficulty getting a natural rhythm. This should never become an opportunity to beat yourself up. That will only make At-Ease Breathing more unlikely. So If you find yourself having trouble doing this, stop, compliment yourself for trying something new and ask your counselor for help.
- Once you get an At-Ease belly breath rhythm started, it will feel natural and comfortable and you will not need to consciously focus on your inhale. Our body prefers this way of breathing so given a chance to return to its natural state, it will take over the job for you. Until that happens you will need to continue to practice At-Ease Breathing briefly at least once if not several times a day to remind your body how it’s done. It really takes hardly any time at all to discover if your breath is reversed and to switch breath to an At-Ease breath.
- When breathing at ease naturally becomes your habitual way of breathing, you will be able to notice how your breathing shifts when you get anxious or uptight. Taking a second to consciously re-establish your natural at-ease breath will enable you to be more relaxed under pressure and more easily take in stride what would have otherwise been stressful.
- At first when times get particularly stressful, it may be hours or even longer to notice that your breathing has reversed. This may happen often for awhile. That’s OK. No judgment needed. Just take a moment to return to natural at-ease belly breathing.
- When coupled with other coping skills and changes to de-stress your life, in time you may come to feel sufficiently uncomfortable physically whenever your breath reverses that your body will automatically switch back to at-ease breathing without your having to notice.
An important addition for managing severe anxiety and panic attacks
Feeling like you can’t catch your breath is a most common symptom of a panic attack. Your breathing feels labored and the harder you try to breath the worse you feel. It is scary and very uncomfortable. The fear of having this feeling can produce enough anxiety to even bring on an attack. Most likely you’ve been told to “take a deep breath,” but this hasn’t helped much. It is what you need to do but here is why it not working.
There is a piece of information missing. There is something you need to do first before taking an At Ease belly breath. You have to EXHALE. When we’re anxious and panicked we tend to hold our breath. This makes our chest muscles tighten and you can’t get enough breath to feel comfortable. Instead you start to feel lightheaded or dizzy. Your heart rate speeds up and extremities may be numb or tingly.
So before you are capable of taking an at-ease belly breath, you need to stop holding your breath: EXHALE! Open your mouth slightly and gently sigh so that our shoulders and chest muscles can relax and will let you take more breath in. Now you can take a slow, deep at-ease breath.