Feeling anxious? Why taking a big deep breath isn’t the answer
‘Take a big deep breath’, we’ve all heard that phrase before, often from people telling us it can help us if we feel stressed or anxious, maybe even in a yoga class, this phrase has definitely escaped my mouth in the past. But whilst it can feel good in the short term, it doesn’t actually help in the long term, and here’s why.
Breathing is an automatic function which you might not pay much attention to but there’s quite a bit of chemistry going on and the signal to breathe actually comes from chemoreceptors in the brain monitoring the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we have in our bodies and not by the amount of oxygen (O2) we have. Having the right amount of CO2 in the body actually helps your cells absorb O2 more efficiently. If we breathe heavily and above our metabolic needs we disrupt the chemical balance and get rid of too much CO2. Blood vessels start to constrict so we end up with reduced blood flow to muscles, tissues, and organs, enhancing feelings of anxiety and creating a sense of lightheadedness. Blood flow to the brain can reduce by 40% which in turn impairs cognitive function, it’s no wonder anxiety can be crippling! And with the last year of lockdowns and restrictions, many of us are feeling more anxious than ever.
Some breathwork practices use over-breathing or hyperventilating such as the Wim Hof Method and can be useful when done in a controlled, conscious way, almost like a reset button for the nervous system. The problem is that quite often it’s occurring in everyday life without us even realising, therefore, creating dysfunctional breathing patterns. So what can we do about it? Here are a few ways that can help:
- Breathe through your nose. When we breathe through our nose we create another gas called nitric oxide, this is a vasodilator so it opens up blood vessels and can help us absorb 18% more oxygen than mouth breathing.
- Take slower breaths. Instead of breathing quickly, make the breath much slower, aim for at least 5 seconds if not longer for each part of the breath. Resonant or coherent breathing where the heart and brain are in coherence is 5.5 seconds.
- Breathe low. When we breathe high up in the chest we activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) but when we keep the chest still and breathe more towards the bottom of the ribs and into the abdomen also known as diaphragmatic breathing we activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). There is also more blood in the lower lobes of the lungs which means that by breathing this way we also transfer more oxygen into the body.
- Breathe light. Instead of inhaling a large amount of air forcefully, imagine that the air is a delicate thread that you are gently drawing in, this prevents over-breathing.
- Make the exhale longer. Instead of keeping both inhale and exhale equal in length, breathe out for a slightly longer time, maybe try 4 counts to breathe in and 6 counts to breathe out. This means that we develop a higher tolerance of CO2 allowing it to remain in the lungs a bit longer, further enhancing the transference of oxygen into the body.
So the next time you are feeling that familiar sense of anxiety creeping in, bring some awareness to your breath, close your mouth, breathe light, slow, and low and see if it makes a difference. Maybe even take a few minutes each morning and at points throughout the day just to practice so that it becomes more of a habit