Reduce Anxiety by Teaching Yourself To Breathe
Teaching yourself to breathe might seem strange, especially as a way to reduce anxiety. You started practicing breathing even before you were born, and you've been breathing ever since. The respiratory system is hardwired to work with the brain and body to keep us functioning well. What happens, though, is that over time, we develop bad breathing habits (like bad posture habits, bad eating habits, and myriad other behaviors that don't do much for our wellbeing). The breath is essential in managing anxiety, and learning how to breathe correctly will help reduce your anxiety.
...there is one "Super Stress Buster" that evokes the relaxation response that we widely recommend as useful for everyone....BREATHING! -- The American Institute of Stress1
Why Breathing Reduces Anxiety
Why bother teaching yourself to breathe? Does the right kind of breathing really make a difference? The short answer: absolutely. Read on for the more helpful answer.
When we're anxious and stressed, our breathing tends to become shallow and happen in short bursts. The relationship between anxiety and breathing is reciprocal. Anxiety causes shallow breathing, which perpetuates anxiety. Also, when we're breathing shallowly out of habit, our anxiety revs up. This is due to the way our breath, our brain, and our body respond to each other:
- Breathing slowly and deeply increases the amount of oxygen in the brain, which helps it function at its optimal level.
- Slow, deep breathing acts on structures and pathways in the brain and body, such as the hypothalamus and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are in the brain, and the adrenal glands are atop the kidneys--and your lungs can stimulate them all. Together, lungs, HPA-axis, and other structures in the brain and body play a big role in how we experience anxiety.
- The breaths we take stimulate the HPA axis, other components of the endocrine system (the adrenals are part of that system), and our sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems. The enteric nervous system is located in the gut; ever felt nauseous when your anxious?
- When our breathing activates these structures in our body and brain, hormones begin to flow within us. These hormones stop the production of stress and anxiety hormones.
- Blood pressure drops and the heart rate slows to a healthy rates.
- We notice a welcome reduction in anxiety courtesy of slow, deep breathing.
If the breath is shallow, erratic, or rapid, however, this doesn't happen. Nothing is called to release the hormones needed to stop stress hormones, and anxiety continues or escalates. While breathing does happen automatically, you can step in and intentionally use it as a tool to reduce anxiety.
How To Teach Yourself How to Breathe To Reduce Anxiety
Some people are naturally athletic. To improve their performance, they learn from coaches and apply the knowledge in their training. Similarly, some people are talented musicians, and to improve and soar, they practice. This can be said for every realm of human existence, including the automatic functions we were born with.
You're not so much teaching yourself how to breathe as you are training your respiratory system to operate in a way that lowers your anxiety when you feel it and keeps it at bay when you don't. The key is to take deeper breaths and to breathe them in and out more slowly and deliberately. This maximizes oxygen in the brain and gives your system a chance to react favorably and do what it was meant to do.
Condition your lungs by deliberately devoting time every day to deep breathing. Establish regular breathing times, such as when you wake up, when you need a little break during the day, at red lights, when you're walking mindfully, at bedtime, and any time that you can sit and breathe. The more you breathe slowly and deeply, the more conditioned your lungs and diaphragm become and the more automatic this type of breathing becomes. (And of course, whenever you notice yourself feeling anxious, pause and breathe deeply and slowly to breathe your anti-anxiety hormones into action.)
I invite you to tune into the video for a tip on how you can train your body to breathe the right way to reduce anxiety.
1. Marksberry, K, "Take a Deep Breath." American Institute for Stress, August 12, 2012.
2. Doucette, S, "Why Does Deep Breathing Calm You Down?" Livestrong, Accessed September 24, 2019.
Peterson, T. (2019, September 26). Reduce Anxiety by Teaching Yourself To Breathe, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 10 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2019/9/reduce-anxiety-by-teaching-yourself-to-breathe
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
I love that you go into the science of breath here. It's truly no wonder why breathwork has been used for eons! Most of us go through our daily lives only taking largely shallow breaths from the chest, never even getting deep into the belly. This is a wonderful tool that anyone can add to their toolbox with a bit of awareness and practice. So glad to come across this read on here.
I think for many (myself included), knowing that there is science behind something helps legitimize it -- and makes people (me) more willing to try something and stick with it. I think it's normal to want sound practices in our toolboxes! :)