Breathing is a powerful contributing factor of our physical state. When we are stressed, we often take short shallow breaths where our shoulders rise and fall. Our chest may feel like a weight is bearing down on it making it difficult to breathe. When our body becomes restricted like this our thoughts and actions are affected too. Our concentration and focus become clouded and we are often quick to react, which then later results in regret or recourse.
When our breathing rate becomes elevated, a number of physiological changes begin to occur. Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself when you‘ve had a scare; you might suddenly gasp, feel a little breathless and a little light-headed, as well as feeling some tingling sensations around your body. Believe it or not, the way we breathe is a major factor in producing these and other sensations that are noticeable when we are anxious.
You might already know that we breathe in oxygen – which is used by the body – and we breathe out carbon dioxide. In order for the body to run efficiently, there needs to be a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, and this balance is maintained through how fast and how deeply we breathe. Of course, the body needs different amounts of oxygen depending on our level of activity. When we exercise, there is an increase in both oxygen and carbon dioxide; in relaxation there is a decrease in both oxygen and carbon dioxide. In both cases the balance is maintained.
When we are anxious though, this balance is disrupted. When we are anxious our breathing rate increases. We take in more oxygen and breathe out more carbon dioxide (CO2) than usual. Because the body is not working any harder than normal it is not using up any extra oxygen, and so it is not producing any extra carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide is being expelled faster than it is being produced its concentration in the blood goes down (leading to a temporary change in the pH of the blood called respiratory alkalosis). Essentially, we take in more oxygen than the body needs. In other words we over breathe, or hyperventilate.
When this imbalance is detected, the body responds with a number of chemical changes. This change in carbon dioxide blood concentration can produce symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, confusion, breathlessness, blurred vision, an increase in heart rate to pump more blood around, numbness and tingling in the extremities, cold clammy hands, and muscle stiffness.
While over breathing and hyperventilation are not specifically dangerous, continued over breathing can leave you feeling exhausted or on edge so that you’re more likely to respond to stressful situations with intense anxiety and panic.
When our breathing returns to its usual rate, the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood return to normal, and the symptoms resolve. The good news is that you can deliberately relax your breathing, get to that balance again, and ultimately feel better.
Deep breathing (sometimes called abdominal, diaphragmatic, or relaxed breathing) signals the body that it is safe to relax. Deep breathing is slower and deeper than normal breathing, and it happens in the belly rather than the chest. Taking time to slow our mind and body down can lead to better outcomes and productivity. Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths are important in regulating our body’s response to stress. It helps increase circulation, loosens muscles, and cleanses the body.
Deep breathing uses the diaphragm muscle which is located under your ribs and above your stomach. You want to draw in as much air as possible forcing your diaphragm to expand. A good way to practice this technique is with your hands on your stomach so you can see your hands rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale breathes. At first it may be a bit uncomfortable because you are using your chest to take in the shallow breathes. You need to work on reconditioning your body to adapt to the deep breathing. Be patient and allow yourself to find a rhythm of breath that is comfortable for you as you practice this exercise.
Assume a comfortable, relaxed position with as much support as possible. Unfold your arms and legs. When you are ready, allow yourself to close your eyes and begin breathing in deeply through your nose. Then exhale through your mouth. When you inhale, allow your stomach to rise so the diaphragmatic area expands. As you exhale, allow your stomach to fall, pushing out all your tension. Continue breathing in deeply through your nose and exhaling through your mouth….Breath slowly, deeply, and evenly….Notice how you feel and enjoy the experience. Repeat.
Now, for the next several breaths focus only on the exhalation phase of your breathing cycle. Notice the warmth of the air as it leaves your mouth. Come up with a positive mantra or affirmation that you may like. One example may be “my mind and body are calm and relaxed.” Repeat this to yourself as you exhale. Again, this will facilitate the mind-body connection and also help you feel more in control of the rhythm of your breath versus your body dictating that. Repeat exercise several times.
Take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale through your mouth pushing out tension and tiredness.
Your breathing is a powerful tool, and very important in any relaxation technique you incorporate into your stress management regimen. Remember to take deep, slow breaths. Deep breathing is an excellent relaxation technique even when used on its own. It can be used as a short quick technique or it can be used for an extended period of time.