“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing is unconscious, we do it at least 12 times a minute without even noticing, and the good thing is we don’t even need to think about it for the vast majority of the 6-7 million breaths we take each year.
Our body is programmed to breath, if you can’t or don’t take a breath in just the space of a single breath a feeling of panic can start to set in, and paradoxically and if you feel anxious, panicky, or scared you will unconsciously tend to breath quicker.
So there’s no wonder that one of the things we can do if we feel anxious is to learn how to control our breathing, and in this way we can bring back a degree of balance even in high pressure situations, and this article will introduce you to a few commonly used breathing techniques that can bring back some control when you are feeling anxiety creep up on you.
For thousands of years breathing has been used as a focus to help relax the whole body, thus breathing is at the heart of yoga, meditation and mindfulness practice. In addition as well as lowering stress levels breathing techniques if repeated on a regular basis have also been shown to lower pulse rates, blood pressure and prevent the release of stress hormones in the body.
Effective breathing techniques can be taken further as they form the core of most meditative practices, therefore breathing can both a help to control your anxiety levels in the short term and reduce your stress and be beneficial to your health in the long term.
At the heart of yoga is ‘Pranayama’, the formal practice of controlling the breath, particularly a type of breathing called Ujjayi Breathing that teaches us to breathe with your diaphragm filling the lower part of your lungs first before your upper chest.
By doing this type of breathing you interrupt the fight or flight response and we induce a relaxation response in the body as filling the lower lungs stimulates the parasympathetic nervous syndrome.
Ujjayi tends to be practised in 3 stages;
- Draw a breath into your lower belly.
- Then raise the lower rib cage with your breath.
- Then continue to breath into the upper chest.
At all times breath through your nose, feel the air move against your throat when you inhale and when you exhale, and try and match the time taken to breath in to the time take to breath out (approximately 5 seconds for each).
In some yoga circles this type of breathing is also called ‘The Ocean Breath’ as the noise made when our breath is dragged over the back of the mouth can sound like the rhythmical waves of an ocean, other people call it ‘belly breathing’ because the focus is to use the diaphragm to fill the lower belly first with the first part of the breath.
The main thing about this type of breathing is that you are getting the belly to fill first and this is the key, because this is what fires the parasympathetic ‘relaxation’ part of the nervous system.
Box Breathing is also called Square Breathing or Four Square Breathing because of the breathing pattern used, the key points are that you are using diaphragmatic breaths, and that you are also pausing your breath at inspiration or expiration.
With this regular pattern you are getting control back on your breathing and used effectively this type of breathing can be the key to avoiding panicking in stressful situations, by rewiring your brain to breath in a controlled manner.
Box breathing is easy to do but takes some practice, the technique involves 4x4 breathing;
- Taking a deep steady diaphragmatic breath in for 4 seconds,
- Holding it in for 4 seconds,
- Slowly letting the breath out steadily for 4 seconds and then,
- Holding your breath there for 4 seconds before repeating the whole process.
This breathing method and the 4 seconds of breath holding can feel just longer than what feels comfortable, especially if we are breathing a bit rapid at the time, therefore to Box Breathe requires focus and focusing on your breathing is a far better thing than focusing on whatever else is getting you stressed.
Apparently this method of breathing is taught to Navy Seals to help them focus under pressure, what I do know is that there is no better way than effective breathing to prepare your body or mind for whatever it is you need to deal with and by focusing on your breathing you take your mind off your worries.
Mindfulness is a conscious state of focusing your awareness on the present moment, while also acknowledging your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. To get into a mindful state and to bring your awareness back to the present there is nothing better than using your breath as a tool to do this.
Bringing all your attention to your breathing, feeling your breath enter your body, experiencing how it feels, where you feel it, how each breath feels different from the last, or finding where the changeover point is between your in breath and out breath, are little things that can be utilised in a guided or self guided mindfulness session to bring your consciousness back into the present.
With practice your breathing can soon becomes a smooth relaxing rhythm that you can use to chill yourself or as the centre of further meditative practice. .
I would suggest to experience this you go to something like the ‘Headspace’ website to learn more and do their 10 minute introduction sessions, which use a focus on breathing as a route into a mindful state.
You don’t really need to ask any athlete, or bodybuilder how important the correct breathing technique is before exertion, all you need to do is remember what your body did the last time your were readying yourself to do something strenuous. What probably happened was that you took a few deep breaths in preparation, then after a slightly deeper breath you held it for a breath or two whilst you braced your core and put your effort into whatever it was you were about to do.
But it’s not just lifting logs or straining at weights, breathing is an essential part of doing anything that requires effort, when we are nervous or anxious sometimes we forget to breathe and this only causes more anxiety.
Power breathing is all about taking a few seconds to take a few deep breaths (big deep belly breaths are the best) before we do something strenuous or onerous, in this way you are preparing yourself for what’s to come physically and mentally.
This article is about breathing, how to breath better, how to use breathing to settle the body and the mind, how to use breathing to focus you into the present.
You don’t need to be a yoga instructor to realise how important breathing is when you exercise, nor do you need to practice mindfulness mindfulness to realise how beneficial breathing is for the mind, in short you just need to remember to breathe because as the saying goes;
‘When you own your own breath, nobody can steal your peace’. – anon.
Bibliography and References
Anderson, D.E., McNeely, J.D., Chesney, M.A. and Windham, B.G. (2008) ‘Breathing variability at rest is positively associated with 24-h blood pressure level’, American Journal of Hypertension, 21(12), pp. 1324–1329. doi: 10.1038/ajh.2008.292.
Anderson, D.E., McNeely, J.D. and Windham, B.G. (2010) ‘Regular slow-breathing exercise effects on blood pressure and breathing patterns at rest’, Journal of Human Hypertension, 24(12), pp. 807–813. doi: 10.1038/jhh.2010.18.
Choices, N. (2017) Breathing exercise for stress. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/ways-relieve-stress.aspx (Accessed: 7 February 2017).
Cramer, H. (2015) ‘The efficacy and safety of yoga in managing hypertension’, Experimental and clinical endocrinology & diabetes : official journal, German Society of Endocrinology [and] German Diabetes Association., 124(2), pp. 65–70.
Fisher, N.D.L. (2016) Stress raising your blood pressure? Take a deep breath – Harvard health Blog. Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/stress-raising-your-blood-pressure-take-a-deep-breath-201602159168 (Accessed: 7 February 2017).
Joseph, C.N., Porta, C., Casucci, G., Casiraghi, N., Maffeis, M., Rossi, M. and Bernardi, L. (2005) ‘Slow breathing improves arterial Baroreflex sensitivity and decreases blood pressure in essential hypertension’, Original Articles, 46(4), pp. 714–718. doi: 10.1161/01.HYP.0000179581.68566.7d.
Kuppusamy, M., Kamaldeen, D., Pitani, R. and Amaldas, J. (2016) ‘Immediate effects of Bhramari Pranayama on resting cardiovascular parameters in healthy adolescents’, Journal of clinical and diagnostic research : JCDR., 10(5).
Pirompol, P., Thanarojwanich, T., Kiettitarai, K., Phansathitwong, P., Charoenjit, P., Suepkinon, S. and Puavilai, W. (2015) ‘Acute-term effects in lowering blood pressure after diaphragmatic breathing and slow breathing in treated hypertensive patients’, Physiotherapy, 101, pp. e1215–e1216. doi: 10.1016/j.physio.2015.03.2147.