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How can breathing possibly help with anxiety?

Quiet Connections Breathing and Anxiety
Hayley Stanton
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Hayley Stanton

Director & Coach at Quiet Connections
Hayley shares her personal stories of feeling shy, socially anxious, ‘not good enough’ and fearfully avoiding the good things in life. Growing her confidence through coaching, gradually stretching her comfort zone and connecting with others, she now uses everything she has learned to help other people grow their confidence in her role as a coach. Hayley is passionate about connecting people with similar stories and creating safe, supportive spaces to make friends and try new things. Hayley dreams of a time when all of the strengths, skills and goodness in ‘quiet’ is recognised and appreciated as readily as being bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight is right now.
Hayley Stanton
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Breathing. Pfft!! How could breathing possibly help with anxiety? I used to feel so annoyed that anyone would even suggest the idea of using breathing techniques. “This isn’t something I have any control over!” I’d think with a roll of my eyes, “Don’t people know how paralysing the fear is for me?” It’s going to take a magic potion -or at the very least, brain surgery- to fix me! I really believed I needed a miracle; that I was totally powerless to help myself. Something had to change me, and my life circumstances needed to change around me too. But there was nothing that I could do, right? I knew breathing wouldn’t work for me, so what was the point in trying?

So I totally get it when you tell me, either directly or with that oh-so-familiar eye roll that breathing isn’t going to help you.

…But what if it could?

It’s been a long time since I saw anxiety as a part of who I am and breathing well has been the key to my calm. And calm is my superpower these days. Calm has allowed me to access courage and take on some tricky challenges in my life. Calm has enabled me to be compassionate towards others, letting go of the desire to prove people wrong, even when their words and actions have hurt me.

But to get to this point, I really needed to wrap my head around how breathing could actually make a difference before I could give it a go. For some people, it’s enough to hear that it’s helpful. Others need stories from people who have benefitted from it. And some of us, well, we need to dig into the science before we start to believe that it’s worth a go.

Let’s think about it…

What happens when we’re feeling anxious?

Fight or flight

When we are anxious, we go into a state of ‘fight or flight’. This is our bodies natural stress response. It happens automatically when it perceives there is a threat, preparing us to keep safe.

This is down to our Autonomic Nervous System (the part of our nervous system that controls our involuntary bodily functions). Our Autonomic Nervous System is divided into two separate branches: the parasympathetic (triggering our rest and digest response) and sympathetic (triggering our fight and flight response).

In times of danger or stress, the sympathetic branch is activated, and that triggers all these responses and more:

  • Increasing heart rate
  • Increasing breathing rate
  • Dilating your pupils
  • Sweating
  • Increasing your muscle tone (tensing) and sending blood to your extremities to prepare for fighting or fleeing)
  • Shutting down the digestive system
  • Activating the primitive part of the brain (focused on survival) and switching off the rational part of the brain (focused on critical thinking), increasing negative assumptions and “what if..?” thoughts.

In other words, the nervous system is responding as if the incident is life threatening. We’d react in the same way whether we were face-to-face with a sabre-tooth tiger or speaking in a room full of people. Your thinking, feelings, and behaviours are all influencing each other, heightening this experience. So how do you put a stop to it?

Take a look at that list again… what’s the one thing you have real sense of control over when you choose to..?

Of course, it’s your breathing. The way you are breathing has a direct connection with your emotions. When you take control of your breath, it sends a message to your body that everything is ok. Your heart rate drops. You start to feel calm and you can more easily let negative thoughts go.

How does breathing alter our emotions?

You have neurons called ‘baroreceptors’ in your carotid arteries in your chest and neck that monitor changes in blood pressure. This information is sent to the brain and back to the heart via your Autonomic Nervous System.

As you breathe in, your blood pressure drops, which causes your heart rate to speed up. As you breathe out, your blood pressure increases and your heart rate slows down.

This ability to use your breath to speed up your heart as you breathe in, and slow down as you breathe out, means that you have a simple way to take control of your neurological system, and in turn, your emotional responses.

When you’re breathing well, your breath is balanced and so is your nervous system. But when you are taking those short, shallow, irregular breaths, as we do when we’re feeling stressed, your nervous system stays in fight or flight mode.

How to start breathing well

Try sitting with your back as straight as possible, legs unfolded, and hands resting in your lap; using balanced breathing to alter your physiological response.

Balanced Breathing is simply breathing in and out for the same length of time (slowing your breath to around 6 seconds); remembering to breathe gently, deeply and evenly, engaging those stomach muscles to use the lower half of your lungs too. Click here for more guidance and an audio download. Sometimes it’s taken me 20 minutes of balanced breathing to feel a sense of calm but most of the time a few minutes is enough. Use it every day to gently let your body know that there’s no real threat to life. Some of our community members love to use the Insight Timer app. Have a play and see what works best for you.

Calm is a superpower. And it’s a power we all have when we choose to practise it.

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