Breathing to Reduce Anxiety

Breathing to Reduce Anxiety

While hyperventilation, or over breathing, is a factor in anxiety attacks, before attributing any physical or psychological problem to stress or hyperventilation, you should see your doctor to make sure there is no underlying medical cause. You can test yourself to learn whether you are an habitual hyperventilator. Here are some clues to help determine if you over breathe. Since most of us don't breathe naturally when we're consciously watching how we breathe, you may need some help:

  • Ask a few people who see you often whether you sigh frequently. Don't rely on yourself for the answer - you may be unaware of the habit. Frequent sighing is a probable sign that you do hyperventilate. Do you often breathe through your mouth? If so, you may be hyperventilating.
  • Next, observe your breathing. Sit comfortably on a couch or chair with your legs extended. Place a heavy book on your abdomen, above the navel. Watch the book as you breathe. If it does move, you may be hyperventilating.

Correct breathing is a rather complicated process. To fill our lungs with air, we have to contract the diaphragm, the muscle that divides the chest and abdominal cavities. Contracting the diaphragm pushes the abdomen out and gives the lungs room to expand. When the lungs are full, abdominal muscles contract, pushing the diaphragm back into its original position and squeezing the lungs to expel air.

If you have a severe problem with hyperventilation, you may need to break the habit with some structured breathing exercise. You may begin by trying the following exercise:

  • Sit comfortably on a chair. Make sure that your clothes are loose and comfortable and that you are relaxed.
  • Place your left hand on top of your breastbone and your right hand on top of your navel.
  • Watch your hands as you breathe in and out through your nose. You should see your right hand on your navel move up and down while your left hand on your breastbone remains still.
  • Consciously try to slow down your breathing, inhaling and exhaling at an even pace.
  • Practice three or four times. Repeat this exercise later in the day.

After practicing twice a day for three or four days, you should be able to do the exercise without watching your hands by remembering what abdominal breathing feels like from inside your body. Continue practicing at this pace until you find that you are taking fewer and deeper breaths. We normally breathe at a rate of 8 to 12 breaths per minute, but during the exercise you should breathe much more slowly (i.e., three to six breaths a minute).

When you are feeling particularly stressed, there are a few things you may try that may help in handling hyperventilation and heading off its physical or psychological consequences:

  • Jog in place for a minute or two. (This should work 80% of the time.)
  • Walk up and down a flight of stairs a few times.

Hyperventilation may not be the cause of everything that ails us, but it can't hurt to try to breathe our stress away.