Updated: Oct 11, 2019
Do you take your breath for granted? Or can you learn to use it to your advantage?
“Why not?” you say – after all it is an automatic process that works without us consciously thinking about it whether we are awake or asleep?
Our breath automatically fluctuates throughout the day depending upon what we are doing, sitting, standing, running walking, and did you know that our body even automatically alternates which nostril is more dominant (without having a cold that is 😊). All of this happens without us having to think about it. Which is fantastic as it would be really tiring if we were constantly having to think about when and how to breathe.
That is until we become anxious. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to fear – our fight or flight response. And whereas in the days of cave men when we were either running away from a sabre tooth tiger or running towards our prey for food, as it could be the last meal we had for a long time, in today’s society due to the constant online instant world that we live in, expectations put on us by this idea of media perfect, being ‘everything to everyone’ our fear responses can be triggered by what in the past would have seemed trivial things – such as a work email, a cross word with someone, spilling something, being late for an appointment. And when this happens , there are many other symptoms that arise both physically, mentally and emotionally - one of the common ones is our breath – either we may struggle for breath or our breathing might speed up – and this is where we want to be able to take over control of our breathing and move it from an unconscious pattern to controlled or conscious. Because guess what ? If we can take control of our breathing it can help us manage and reduce the other symptoms of anxiety/panic such as feeling nauseous, racy heart, dizziness, sweaty palms – a bit like a “buy 1 get 3 or 4 free” 😊 activating our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) starting to bring the body and mind into a state of calm – helping us to reassess the situation in a less heightened mental and emotional state.
Now I reckon that sounds a pretty good thing to be able to do – wouldn’t you agree?
So what do we need to do?
We need to be able to regulate the amount of oxygen that is entering the body and the amount of carbon dioxide that is leaving the body and whilst we are in the middle of anxiety/panic trying to think about how we survive it may feel like too hard work to focus on your breath , but believe me if you can get control of the breath this is where it can become your BFF (Best Friend Forever) and it is a BFF that is with you wherever you go – it just might have been hiding in the background for a while.
So how – how can I get my breathing back to a normal healthy pattern?
It’s highly likely that when you are feeling anxious you are breathing only into the top half of your lungs – shallow/fast breathing maybe even holding your breath. And what you need to do is start diaphragmatic/belly breathing. What the **** is that you say. I thought it was my lungs that did the breathing. Yes you're right your lungs are where the air goes into when you breath in and where it goes out of when you exhale. But here’s the science bit...
The diaphragm is a large dome shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage. When breathing in, the diaphragm contracts and helps lower the pressure in the chest cavity to enable air to enter the lungs. It also presses down on the belly and the belly rises. As we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes and floats back up towards the rib cage enabling air to leave the lungs and the belly softens back towards the spine. If you take a look at a baby/young child breathing or a pet you will notice that both the belly and the chest rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale – this is our natural way of breathing. But we have become a nation of ‘gut suckers’ because the external world says to be perfect you need a wash board stomach, because when we try and squeeze past someone we sue the words breathe in and because we are trying to fit through a space we breathe in and pull our belly in at the same time – therefore we have moved from our natural breathing state.
Ok – so now you know the simple mechanics of how your breathing works – lets get practicing. There are a number of methods of doing this breath, but the most important thing is if you can practice this breath regularly when you aren’t stressed or anxious – it will make it so much easier for you to access it when you really need it.
Lets get our belly’s breathing:-
Either standing or sitting – adopt an upright but relaxed posture.
Soften the shoulders
Imagine as you inhale you are filling a balloon up with air. On the outside of the balloon there are 3 lines from the bottom with the words belly, ribs, collar bones.
On an inhale breathe in for a count of 3. On count 1 allow belly to expand, count 2 expand into the rib cage and count 3 up to the collar bones.
Imagine as you exhale you are slowly letting the air out of the balloon. On a count of 1 collar bones soften, count 2 rib cage softens, count 3 belly softens. Make sure your exhale is either the same length or longer than the inhale.
Pause briefly and repeat 3 – 5 times.
NB – if you have never breathed in this way before you may find some restriction or ‘stickiness’ of movement. This is because the diaphragm is a muscle and you also have muscles between each rib called the intercostal muscles. If these muscles haven’t been used like this then like any other muscle in the body they will be a little stiff. So go gently to start with and the motto is little and often and it won’t be long before you start to notice the difference and more freedom of movement.
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