Such a commonplace, everyday thing we do without even thinking about it. Yet breathing is integral in good mental health.
One of the things we forget to do when we’re anxious or frustrated is remember to breathe. We may breathe very fast and shallowly, or we may kind of hold our breath. Both lead to our body starting itself to feel anxious.
This is great for survival, but not so great if in already feeling anxious to begin with. When not faced with the circumstance of fighting a man-eating sabre-tooth tiger, added anxiety is not always helpful. Adding anxiety to anxiety creates the very cycle that can lead to panic.
You can see where this is heading. And that’s exactly what our mind does! Adding a flurry of fearful thoughts and disaster which can be self-fulfilling prophecies, at least at first, “Oh no, see how I feel. Oh my gosh, am I going crazy. Oh, and now I can’t breathe. . …I must be going crazy”. We are like a day-time soap opera plunging into the plot line, experiencing ‘change’ dramatically in real time yet repetitively the story does not really change, and we are not necessarily aware of the loop or a way out.
I have experienced this personally myself in both small ways and large, but it is usually the smaller stuff that slips underneath the radar, and requires more awareness and discipline in developing the craft of breathing and mindfulness. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you have always gotten. Instead of the repetitive loop of anxiety and panic: Breathe!
A great article that recently came out from the New York Times, Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing, which outlines the necessity of learning to breathe.
Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four times.
You have just calmed your nervous system. Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness, and boost your immune system.
Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of controlled breathing are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder. How controlled breathing may promote healing remains a source of scientific study. One theory is that controlled breathing can change the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as the body’s stress response, says Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and coauthor of “The Healing Power of the Breath.”
Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.
Many maladies, such as anxiety and depression, are aggravated or triggered by stress. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” says Dr. Brown, who has a private practice in Manhattan and teaches breathing workshops around the world. When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response, said Dr. Brown. When you take shallow rapid breaths or hold your breath, the sympathetic response is activated. “If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down,” said Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and Dr. Brown’s coauthor.
The small detail of what we do matters. Those first three or four breaths at the start of some ‘closer anxiousness’ may help settle the system. That may be all you need. Knowing how anxiety or panic cycles can occur helps build some cognitive slowdown, and further ease our distress.
If our greatest fear, for instance, is of open spaces, it’s not the open space itself that produces the anxiety but the fear that we may break down and lose it in front of others. Usually this never happens, but the fear does. And it is the fear that is disabling, and may need a stepped graduated exposure to that which we are uncomfortable. But I digress.
So if you are struggling at the moment, and you already have some experience with this, I encourage you to come back to the basics, and practice the craft of healing. Review that which you have overlooked or lost sight. And do not overlook the importance of the simple because it is the basis of everything. Maybe that is all you need at the moment.
Awareness, and breathe. Discipline over the simple.
If you are suffering from anxiety or panic attacks, we can help you. Contact us for a warm and empathetic appointment.