In the last blog, we were looking at worrying and the impact on not only our minds, but our bodies too. In this blog we want to explore one area of how our bodies can respond to stress. If we worry and get anxious, we will more than likely be impacting our breathing patterns. Our breath is such an important aspect of being alive, if we haven’t taken a breath, in just a few minutes our bodies will just shut down and stop working. If we just take a moment to consider this, we all have to agree that our breathing is one of the top things our bodies rely on. What can happen in stress, is that our mind sends the signals to our bodies, and we can go one of two ways; we can literally stop breathing for a moment. What we find is that we start to hold our breath or tense parts of our torso up which then stops our bodies from breathing normally. Or we can find that our bodies start making us breathe faster, our breathing pattern will start to increase, at its worst we can start hyperventilating. Both of these extremes to our breathing can make us feel uncomfortable and this can then trigger our worries to continue to grow. Also, if we breathe erratically it will take up lots of energy doing this and in turn, reduce the amount of oxygen going to the brain. Because of this you can feel lightheaded and will have a rapid heartbeat. All of the symptoms are signs that you are anxious or having an anxiety attack. If we learn to be more positively aware of how we breathe, and work to remove the habits that are causing this tension around our breathing, we will automatically feel more relaxed.
This whole breathing issue can then have a deeper impact on a psychological level and thus continue the cycle of increasing our worries and anxiety. For many of us, if our bodies are not feeling as they would normally, we often are triggered to feel that there is something physically wrong with us. Also is we are struggling to catch our breath; this can be a scary feeling as well, which can enhance those fears over our health and wellbeing. This process of increased breathing is what we need in a fight, flight, or freeze response. As we get more oxygen into our bodies, it is sent to our muscles preparing us to run. Your heart rate increases, you might feel hot as more blood is pumped into your body to help you fight. All these symptoms are the normal body response designed to save our lives. The thing is now for most of us in the majority of the situations we find ourselves in, we are not going to be running or fighting for our life — from wild bear attacks or men with chain saws. But your body still reacts to your trip to the crowded supermarket, your work presentation, and other anxiety-provoking events as if you were.
Here is a great exercise that you can do to help you relax tension in your torso, which is affecting your breathing, and helping you slow your breathing down. Also over time, it will help you understand what is happening with your breathing and how to return your breathing to a normal level.
Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Sit up comfortably in a chair or lie back on a flat surface, like your bed, with your head supported.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage. This will allow you to better feel your diaphragm as you breathe.
- You might notice that in parts of your torso you are holding your breath.
- Or you might notice that parts of your torso feel quite tense.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose so your stomach moves out against your hand.
- If there are areas not breathing or feeling tense, focus on pushing the breath to those parts of you with the tension.
- Tighten your stomach muscles. Let them fall inward as you exhale through your nose or your mouth (depending on what’s easier for you).
- Continue to take deep breaths in and out, feeling your stomach rise in and out. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes a day.
You might have noticed from this exercise that breathing is something that involves most of our torso, not only the front of our torso, but the back as well. Being aware of how to breathe fully and remove restrictions to your breath is a great thing to be able to do. After you have practised this a few times, you will be able to check how you are breathing in a certain situation and work to remove those frozen or tense responses and patterns. If we are shallow breathing just in our upper chest, then we will not get enough air in for our bodies to function well. This can then lead us to get scared over how we are breathing and increase those anxious and worried feelings in our bodies. Over time we can learn how to quickly effect change into our breathing, we will be able to keep ourselves feeling more relaxed. The easiest way is to just push the breath into those parts that are not breathing or tense. You can do this by physically pushing from inside your body into your lower stomach or upper chest. Pushing out will help to release the tension and restart affecting breathing to those areas, getting the body back to normal breathing.
This is also a good distraction for us when we are feeling anxious or worried, by positively focusing on enhancing our natural breathing, we are less likely to be worrying about how we are feeling, if we are distracted. Like any new approach we want to learn, we need to put time into this, so do practise the breathing exercise regularly, as this will make it easier when you need to increase or slow your breathing in those stressful situations. Over time you will become well-practised in understanding how relaxed breathing should feel and more able to quickly identify the areas of tension and frozen breathing areas.
Using this approach will make a big impact on how you breathe and your stress levels. Start today to see the changes in anxiety and worry levels. Sara x