I get it. When you are having a panic attack or you’re pissed off and someone tells you “just breathe”, it can feel like the last thing that you want to do.
“Yeah, okay, I am going to take some breaths and feel magically better” [insert sarcasm here].
Sometimes with coping skills it is all about timing.
Such as the friend telling you to “just breathe” when you’re already panicked that probably feels like pretty poor timing. In fact, most coping skills are more easily and efficiently utilized as soon as you notice a shift in yourself (like when your anxiety is at about 10-20% instead of 90%).
Although individuals mean it in a helpful way, it doesn’t always come off as helpful.
So let me explain why “breathing” is even a thing that is mentioned:
When we have increased nervous system arousal, which can happen when anxiety or stress goes up, our body begins doing all kinds of things – known as the stress response. The stress response, more commonly recognized as fight-flight-freeze, signals our body to “get us ready for battle”. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing gets shallow and more rapid, and your muscles tense up as adrenaline is pumped through your body.
Notice that from all these symptoms listed, what is something you can consciously control? Can you mentally decide you don’t want adrenaline to pump through your body? Can you tell your heart to slow down?
Breathing is something we do have control over, despite how it may feel in the moment, where it greatly impacts other features of the stress response to lead us into an alternative response. In the relaxation response, our breathing becomes deeper and slower and stress response symptoms fade. If we want to be super rational about it, oxygen (which you get from breathing) is responsible for a lot of things in your body from cognition to digestion. In multiple areas of research in fact, taking control of your breathing has been shown to better regulate the sympathetic nervous system (that part of the body that controls a lot of those big-ticket items from the stress response, like our heart rate).
So, after highlighting the rationale behind this whole “just breathe” ideal, I want you to understand that I also get that “just breathing” will not make you feel better. You’re right, because the reality is that even during that stress response you’re usually still breathing, just not breathing in a way to signal your relaxation response.
How Do You Make Breathing Your Superpower?
Awareness is a key factor here because - like I previously stated - earlier intervention is easier intervention.
To increase some of that awareness, here are some steps to guide you in in developing that skill and knowing how to intervene early:
Recognize when episodes of the stress response or anxiety start as near the beginning as possible.
Increase your awareness of how this response or anxiety affects you. Become aware of the body’s signals and symptoms that accompany this response/your anxiety.
Identify any patterns, cues, or triggers. For instance, if you notice this response arises every time you are alone or every time you get in a car.
Based on experience, try to pinpoint what is causing this response. What happened yesterday? What were you thinking about right before the change?
Catch fleeting thoughts or images accompanying this feeling.
What is the dialogue with yourself right before these changes?
Then comes the breathing and relaxation work.
Focused and effective breath work is not only physically good for your body, like we previously discussed, but it is also very grounding. Bonus fact, grounding is one of the most effective coping skills for the physical experiences that occur with anxiety. So, no kidding that these go hand-in-hand!
Now that we have emphasized steps to be more aware, when we are aware what do we do?
This will take practice to become more controlled with your breathing - especially during a stress response - however, there are many recordings and videos to help us learn. At first, you may find it more helpful to put one of these on repeat until you feel you have learned the skill. The following are some examples of different types of controlled breathing exercises:
Pursed lip breathing: a type of breathing where you are breathing in through the nose and out through pursed lips (like you are going to whistle or blow bubbles, but without the sound).
Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing: this type of breathing requires our focus to be on the movement of the breath in the body, while maintaining a healthy breath.
2:1 breathing ratio: Here the goal is to switch up the ratio of your breathing and to take two breaths in before your breath out, to ensure a nice deep breath. Another way this technique is done, is to breath in x seconds and breathe out double that (for instance, in for 4 seconds and out for 8 seconds)
Balloon breathing: This exercise incorporates imagery and breathing techniques combined. This is a voice recording I created to help guide people through this method of breathing.
Square breathing: Using a “square” as a guide to help visualize when to breathe in and out.
Breathing can be a great starting tool; however, if you feel like this is not enough and you want to get to the root of this anxiety response, feel free to reach out to the clinic today and ask for me, Taylor. Let me know which breathing technique works best for you!