Breathing is one of the most important things we do. We can go weeks without food, days without water, but if we stop breathing for even a few minutes, we can die.
For thousands of years Hindus and Yogis and countless other mystics have manipulated their breathing to reach a peaceful, enlightened state of mind. In the last few decades psychologists working with anxiety sufferers have realized that breathing plays a vital role in the physiology of panic attacks.
Breath control is not simply where East meets West. This is where psychology and mysticism become one.
Panic attacks are serious business for anyone with anxiety. They can come out of no-where, striking when least expected. But most of the time panic attacks follow a pattern. I can predict my own panic attacks by watching factors like stress, sleep, diet, and physical activity.
When I'm overtired, after a long day of inactivity and eating sugary foods, I find that having a panic attack isn't just likely, it's normal. And because of panic's predictable nature, I have noticed another common factor involved.
My breathing habits play a lead role in the timing and severity of my panic attacks. When I breathe poorly, I'm more prone to a panic attack. When I breathe in the right way, I rarely get a panic attack. It's that simple.
Even when I'm living an unhealthy lifestyle, if I'm breathing the way I'm supposed to breathe, panic is held at bay. When I'm breathing poorly, the lifestyle factors that help create panic become huge problems.
Two interrelated elements influence panic attacks. The psychological and the physiological.
At panic's core are a series of physiological symptoms—a set of fight or flight responses triggered by the amygdala (the amygdala remembers negative emotional events that have happened to us, and triggers the fight or flight response to defend us when we experience a similar event in the future).
But it is the psychological, how we think, perceive, and react to our physical symptoms, which dictate whether the fight or flight mechanism will turn into a full-blown panic attack.
A racing heart and sweaty palms do not in and of themselves indicate a panic attack, only an abnormal fight or flight reaction. It is when our mind gets involved and we negatively interpret the racing heart and sweaty palms that a panic attack occurs.
The problem is that the fight or flight response is perfectly normal. When humans lived in the wild we had to react to threats quickly. But now that we live in our relatively safe modern society, we're still experiencing the amygdala's need to keep us safe, but lack the danger.
Having a panic attack is like getting all dressed up with nowhere to go. It's a primal response to normal situations.
It's easy to see the connection between stress or poor diets and panic attacks. But these things are long-term situations. It's hard to stop a panic attack that is just starting by immediately changing one's sleeping habits or diet. It's easier to go for a run or a walk and see an immediate result, but it's not always convenient.
Breathing works because it deals immediately with both the physiological and psychological triggers of panic. Breathing slows down the body, relieving physical stress, tension, and helping to dump the large amounts of adrenaline the body uses to defend itself or run away. And breathing calms the mind by slowing the thoughts, allowing the sufferer to focus on positive thoughts instead of the knee-jerk distortions often associated with panic.
Facts about breathing:
Deep breathing introduces large amounts of oxygen to the body, while removing large amounts of carbon dioxide, helping to balance the two (breathing shallowly often creates an imbalance, with more carbon dioxide than oxygen, and can lead to hyperventilating).
Because breathing deeply through the nose brings more oxygen to the brain, it is one of the best methods for relaxation. Sometimes it is the only method available.
Along with the skin, liver and kidneys, the lungs are one of the body's waste removal organs, ridding the body of carbon dioxide. But deep breathing also helps the function of the other organs, improving overall waste removal, cleansing the body. A cleaner body functions properly, decreasing stress and enabling the brain to work better.
The wrong way to breathe:
Shallow breathing is the leading cause of my own panic. I notice shallow breathing (not breathing deeply) in all of my attacks.
Though breathing is largely automatic, there is an efficient and an inefficient way to breathe. When we breathe through the mouth, trapping the air inside the chest, and even holding our breath when we tense up, we're inhibiting our body's ability to process oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. The brain depends heavily on receiving oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide, and when the lungs aren't working efficiently, neither is it.
The right way to breathe:
The efficient way to breathe is quite the opposite. Breathing through the nose, letting the lungs expand into the stomach, and keeping the breaths steady and consistent.
At the first sign of a panic attack I can often use my breathing to stop it in its tracks. Breathing deeply during the middle of an attack can lesson its symptoms and bring my body back to its normal state. Regular deep breathing exercises have been the number one factor in preventing my panic attacks altogether.
Breathing is meditation:
Meditation is simply sitting in a comfortable position and breathing deeply, evenly, and calming the body and mind.
Meditation puts my body in a deep state of relaxation. This helps slow my racing mind, allowing me to work through thoughts like “I'm going to die” and “I'm going insane.” Through deep breathing I have the ability to think clearly and confidently.
How I breathe:
There is no one right way to meditate.
Sometimes I lay on my back on a comfortable bed or couch, sit on the floor in a half lotus position (Indian style), or sit in a chair with my feet firmly on the floor. No matter where I sit or lay down, I keep my back straight and my shoulders relaxed.
I inhale and exhale through my nose. This allows a greater amount of oxygen to reach the brain, and helps me focus on pushing the air into my stomach.
When I inhale I do so slowly, sometimes going with what feels natural or counting to seven or ten (whatever is comfortable). I exhale with the same rhythm and pace as I inhale, slowly releasing the air in my lungs, letting my body relax. As air is released, I feel my limbs sinking with gravity.
When I inhale I do not do so with my chest. When humans breathe with their chest rising, they're breathing too shallowly to allow the maximum amount of air into their body per breath. Instead, I breathe into my abdomen, watching my stomach rise slowly as I exhale until it has a rounded, fat Buddha appearance—like I have a beer belly.
When I exhale I watch my stomach return to normal, perhaps even sucking it in a little as the last of my breath leaves my body. My chest never moves! My lungs expand down into my stomach, not against my rib cage.
Tips to breathing for a heightened state of relaxation:
Breathe naturally. Forcing yourself to breathe a certain way will only increase tension. Over time you'll readjust your habits, your breathing will become long and deep. Breathe what feels comfortably. There is such a thing as breathing too deeply.
Focus on your breath. This is a great meditative practice to get your thoughts off your mind, off your fears and distorted thought patterns. Observe your stomach rising and falling.
Don't be afraid to try breathing anywhere. Many people believe meditation can only be done in a quiet place, at a certain time of day, but reality is that meditation is most practical and effective when it's done, not when we're already relaxed, but when we need it the most! This can be at a busy store, at a party, a business meeting, sitting at a desk in a classroom, while exercising, or during a panic attack.
Perhaps the best advantage breathing has for anxiety sufferers is that it's not noticeable. People simply do not pay attention to each other's breathing habits, so breathing deeply is an unobtrusive practice. It is convenient in that it can be done anywhere, and no one will question us or judge us for it.
It is amazing that something so simple, which most of us take for granted—something every human being does all day, every day, even in our sleep—can have such a positive impact on panic.
But don't take my word for it. Research breathing's effects on the body and try it for yourself.
Tao of Anxiety: Series
Tao of Anxiety: Series