“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
― thich nhat han
There is a phrase we use when things come so naturally that we aren’t even aware we are doing them. That effortless and automatic effort is said to be “just like breathing.”
It’s common to take breathing and its importance to life for granted because it’s thoughtless. When we breathe air, we feed our cells with oxygen, and we release carbon dioxide. Without that process, we wouldn’t be alive.
But although it comes automatically, at times, things can become imbalanced. This imbalance can lead to an upset in the amount of oxygen the cells receive and how much carbon dioxide is exhaled.
When things get off-track, it can trigger the body that something is wrong and contribute to feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and in some people, panic attacks, and other emotional problems.
Yes, Your Breathing Can Greatly Affect Your Experience of Panic and Anxiety
Over time, chronic anxiety can lead to depression. And when you feel depressed, your energy decreases, which will only further perpetuate shallow breathing. With shallow breathing comes more anxiety…and it is easy to see how the cycle of anxiety and depression feeds into itself.
Unless trained to, most people are entirely unaware of the way that they are inhaling and exhaling. But there are two different types of breathing patterns, and they have a significant effect on the body:
- Diaphragmatic breathing (abdominal)
- Thoracic breathing (chest)
In layman’s terms, thoracic breathing is the more shallow type of breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing is what we typically call “deep breathing.” When you become anxious r fearful, you tend to breathe much more shallow and from the chest instead of the diaphragm. Since your heart rate typically increases under stress, your breathing hastens, which leads to this quick “chest” breathing, usually without even being aware.
Breathing from the chest, or thoracic breathing can lead to an upset in the balance of oxygen that you are taking in versus carbon dioxide that you are exhaling. And that imbalance can result in an increased heart rate, muscle tension, light-headedness, and other physiological changes.
In the exchange, the net balance usually leads to improper oxygenation of the cells, which can trigger an adrenal or stress response that can bring on anxiety, shortness of breath, or even lead to a panic attack. When your body doesn’t get the right amount of oxygen due to breathing irregularities, it can set off the “flight or fight” response. That releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which only further exasperate your breathing irregularities.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the other type of breathing. It is the process of taking deep breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing is the way that we breathe when we are babies and usually when we are asleep. It is a natural and relaxed way of inhaling and exhaling in the absence of external stress and triggers.
What is the Difference Between Thoracic and Diaphragmatic Breathing?
The best way to understand the difference between thoracic and diaphragmatic breathing is to hold one hand over your waist, or upper abdomen, and place the other mid-chest. As you breathe in and out, decipher which hand is rising and lowering.
If you are taking deep, cleansing, and healthy breaths, you should notice your lower hand rising and falling as your abdomen expands and contracts. Although it is typical to see this type of breathing in non-stress conditions, you need to become aware of how stress affects your breathing patterns. You can do that by consciously taking stock of your breathing when you experience feelings of fear or anxiety.
Relaxed Breathing Techniques
The next time that you begin to feel anxious or stressed, take the time to examine your breathing. If you notice that you are primarily chest breathing, use this technique to calm it down, calm yourself, and reboot your breathing to help reduce anxiety.
- Inhale through your nose slowly and deeply. Pay special attention to relaxing your shoulders and reducing tension in your body through mindful thought. Concentrate on expanding your abdomen. It is okay to exaggerate at first to find your peace. You should begin to see that your chest will rise a little less with every inhalation
- Exhale through your mouth slowly. Purse your lips together as you blow air from your lips, but focus on keeping your jaw and face as relaxed as possible. When doing it correctly, you might hear a “whooshing” sound each time you exhale
- Repeat the steps as many times as it takes to calm your heartbeat, refocus your mind, and find peace
The beauty of learning deep breathing is that you can practice it as often as you want and anywhere you want. You can do it in any position that you find comforting, lying, standing, or sitting. If you find that the deep breathing technique is increasing your anxiety or making you feel panicked, stop for now and try it again at another time. Some people who experience panic or panic attacks might find diaphragmatic breathing scary or experience an increase in anxiety. Sometimes patterns are difficult to override, so take your time and be patient with yourself. It might take a little more practice.
Reaching a Balance Will Lead to Better Physical and Emotional Wellness
The body works best in a state of balance and homeostasis. When you breathe from the chest, especially during times of stress, that can lead to an imbalance of oxygen. That imbalance can set-off an entire chain reaction in the body. Those changes can increase your feelings of anxiety, and, in some people, lead to panic.
The key is first to understand how your breathing changes, and then to alter those changes in the face of stress to reduce the effects it has on your emotional well-being. Anxiety and panic attacks are not just a symptom of the mind, rather the whole body.
So the best way to overcome them is to take a holistic approach. Deep breathing is an excellent first step to calming it down and rebalancing your body and mind. For more information and practical steps to reduce anxiety and depression.