Breathing. Seems natural enough. We do it without much thought. But our breath isn’t just a passive means to keep living. How we are breathing can be an indicator of our state of mind: worried or relaxed.
And breathing the wrong way can make us feel worse. But the cool thing is, we can control some of our breathing, too.
That control can be a tool to help us work through stress, to settle anxiety, to anchor us in times of emotional upheaval.
There’s a wrong way to breath
Believe it or not, body image issues can pop up in our breath. Have you ever tried to suck in your stomach, or keep it flat because we’re feeling a little self conscious? No, not me. Never. Whatever it is, we somehow decided we wouldn’t let our bellies move out when we breathe.
But that’s wrong.
Our breath needs to take up our whole expanse, engaging the diaphragm. We know the diaphragm is engaged when our belly comes out a bit and goes back in with the breath.
(According to this site, we get a third less oxygen when we hold our stomachs firm.)
We also create tension (cuz we like to make things harder for ourselves or what?) when we breath high up in our chests. This kind of breathing puts us right in the middle of our fight or flight mode–anxiety territory. (also, if you find you’re holding your breath, big indicator you’re stressed)
My favorite breathing exercise
So, we can create stress when we’re breathing wrong. Now let’s talk about how we can relieve stress my manipulating our breathing.
When I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic 15 years ago, my therapist recommended I take a listen to Dr. Andrew Weil and his breathing exercises.
The most powerful breathing exercise he teaches is the 4-7-8 breath. Inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven and exhale for a count of eight. The length of time doesn’t matter, the ratio does. You might do something like this if you practice yoga or meditation.
Do this breathing exercise for four cycles, two times a day. After a month, increase it to eight cycles twice a day.
There are a couple of nuances to getting this right, so watch the video here.
Weil says this practice done regularly for a couple of months:
–Acts as a natural sleep aid
–Helps fight cravings
–May lower blood pressure
–Helps to deal with stress and anxiety
—May improve digestion
Aside from Xanax, when I practiced this regularly, this has been the only thing that has ever stopped a panic attack.
It also helps calm me in times when I can feel myself reeling with worried thoughts or frustration. I go to this sometimes when I’m about to scream my head off at my kids.
I’ve gotten a little rusty at this, though, so I’m writing about it now as a reminder to myself and to help anyone else who wants an easy, free, quick tool for building your own personal stress buster.
Another resource: This article explains lots of interesting ways to think about your breath. For instance, did you know, in groups we mimic each others breathing cycles, which explains why we can easily pick up someone else’s tension!