Breathing is a bodily function we can control and regulate so it is a useful tool for achieving a relaxed and clear state of mind.
Practicing mindful breathing exercises can be calming and energizing. It can even help with a range of stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.
Is your breathing pattern stressful?
Four breathing patterns are commonly associated with anxiety. Do any of them sound familiar?
1. Shallow Chest Breathing
What’s the normal breathing pattern when you’re stressed? Your body needs oxygen as fast as possible to allow you to fight hard or run away fast. To take in that oxygen you rapidly draw in air by lifting your upper chest. You may feel your shoulders rise if you take a chest breath. When exaggerated, it looks like gasping for air. Nearly one hundred percent of people who suffer from anxiety breathe with their chest. Lifting your chest to take a breath is not the natural way to breathe. Did you ever watch infants or small children breathe? Their tiny bellies move in and out. They only take chest breaths while crying or upset.
With practice, you can use your belly to initiate each breath, just as you were doing when you were an infant
2. Inhaling More Than Exhaling
A second, but related pattern of stressful breathing consists of excessively focusing on inhaling. Feeling as if you can’t get enough air, you may think you need to inhale strongly, usually by lifting your chest. Then, because you’re focused on the need for more air and often worried that you can’t breathe, you inhale again to get more air. What happens when you keep repeating this type of breath cycle? You hyperventilate! Hyperventilation occurs when you inhale and don’t take the time to exhale fully. Inhaling again before the lungs empty of carbon dioxide causes too much oxygen to build up. That’s why the fastest way to stop an extreme panic attack is to breathe into a paper bag. Inhaling your exhaled air helps you regain your carbon dioxide level. Find a steady rhythm of breathing by making the exhalations as long as the inhalations to prevent hyperventilation. The exhalation is the most relaxing part of the breath, so prolong and savor it to fully experience the process of “letting go.”
3. Holding Your Breath
A third stressful breathing pattern involves holding your breath. A reaction directly connected to fear, you may suddenly gasp and then freeze, like a deer caught in headlights. We can forget to breathe when completely absorbed in worrisome thoughts.
4. Breathing Too Rapidly
The fight-or-flight response demands rapid breathing. If a wild animal is chasing you, your body requires a lot of oxygen very quickly to fight or run away. This may look like shallow, panting breaths.
How to practice mindful breathing?
- Get comfortable. You can lie on your back in bed or on the floor with a pillow under your head and knees. Or you can sit in a chair with your shoulders, head, and neck supported against the back of the chair.
- Breathe in through your nose. Let your belly fill with air.
- Breathe out through your nose.
- Place one hand on your belly. Place the other hand on your chest.
- As you breathe in, feel your belly rise. As you breathe out, feel your belly lower. The hand on your belly should move more than the one that’s on your chest.
- Take three more full, deep breaths. Breathe fully into your belly as it rises and falls with your breath.
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not as important as the ratio of 4:7:8.
If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice, you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
The Stimulating Breath
The Stimulating Breath is adapted from yogic breathing techniques. Its aim is to raise vital energy and increase alertness. If done properly, you may feel invigorated, comparable to the heightened awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest and the abdomen. Try this diaphragmatic breathing exercise the next time you need an energy boost and feel yourself reaching for a cup of coffee.
- Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise.
- Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellows. Breathe normally after each cycle.
- Do not do for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute.