Breathing is our basic support system. In times of stress and difficulty, simply focusing on breathing can restore a sense of inner capability and calm. It’s for this reason that my eye was drawn to two recent books on the topic of breathing: Breath, by James Nestor and Close your Mouth by Patrick McKeown, founder of the Buteyko Clinic. This blog is the first in a series of two to consider some of the learning points taken from these books and how breathing practice and mindful breathing can be a form of self-support when facing anxious feelings.
I’ve enjoyed sitting down to read both of Nestor and McKeown’s books. It’s felt relaxing and strangely productive at the same time. And, based on a resting respiratory rate of 12 breath cycles per minute, I’ve taken somewhere close to 72,000 breaths as I’ve read. It’s caused me to be far more aware of my breathing, moment-to-moment, and has got me thinking about the role breathing plays in emotional and neurological regulation, particularly when experiencing anxiety.
Breath Awareness: A Powerful Tool
Become more aware of our breathing in any given moment provides valuable data about our experiencing within and our relationship to the world around us. Perhaps you’ve noticed how your breath changes in response to emotional experiencing – becomign faster or slower, deeper or more shallow, smoother or more erratic? For anyone who wants to build breath awareness into daily life, it can help to try sitting and tuning into what you experience in the present moment. Aim to narrate or describe what it is you experience about your breathing. Begin each sentence with the phrase, “right now, I’m aware that…..”
Questions that can support this awareness exercise include:
· What word describes my breathing right now? Is your breathing laboured? Smooth? What other word(s) express the felt sense of your experiencing?
· Consider the pace of your breathing: fast, slow, gradually increasing or decreasing in pace?
· Consider the depth of your breathing: shallow, light breaths or somewhere closer to deep breathing?
· Consider anything you notice about the outbreath as distinct from the inbreath. How does your exhale differ from your inhale?
· Consider where in your body you sense the breath as it moves within your system. Which muscles move as you breathe? Does your breath change with your increasing awareness?
Having greater awareness allows us to notice thought patterns, breathing changes and tension in our body. Our breathing patterns can be signals of anxiety building and allow us to choose to respond in a way that is self-supporting and self-caring.
Breathing and the Autonomic Nervous System
When we experience anxiety, or face some stress or threat, our autonomic nervous system prepares the body for fight or flight in response. Our heart rate increases, muscles tense and our digestion slows. Most aspects of our nervous system cannot be consciously controlled. Breathing is unique in that, through conscious breathing, you can regulate your nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the way our body regulates processes for rest and activity, and this process happens automatically. It consists of 2 main branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch of the ANS stimulate the body’s fight or flight response. When faced with a danger, or potential danger, the sympathetic system causes changes in our heart rate, rate of respiration, digestion and muscle tension so that we are physically prepared to fight or flee. This happens as soon as our brain detects threat, even if the brain is mistaken. For example, on seeing a coil of rope from the corner or your eye, your heart may begin to beat fast and your breathing rate will automatically increase. Your brain has read the sensory data as “snake” and responded in much the same way as it would if you saw an actual snake. This process is extremely useful to our survival. However, when we remain in a state of heightened sympathetic stimulation, our body remains tense, on edge and anxious.
The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is focussed on restoring calm and balance to our bodies after sympathetic stimulation. It prevents the body from overworking and brings our breathing, heart rate and muscle tension back to a more regulated state in order to facilitate rest and recovery. Breathing has a vital role to play in kickstarting the parasympathetic response of calm and balance. It’s been shown that deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic branch of the ANS and decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone. Consider building in helpful slow and deep breathing practice, particularly focusing on the releasing exhale breath, when you sense your nervous system would benefit from calm and balanced regulation.
And so, a commitment to noticing and describing – with a non-judgemental, descriptive approach can be a powerful place to begin with breath work for anxiety. Noticing and naming how your breath changes in response to feelings of fear, panic and anxiety can be a helpful place to start when looking to incoporate breath practice into your daily routine.
In a later blog, we’ll consider some practical and accessible breath practices to support your parasympatheic branch of the nervous system in restoring a sense of calm regulation.
· Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397.
· Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.
· McKeown, P. (2004). Close Your Mouth. Buteyko Books: Moycullen.
· Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Books: London.