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Through breathing, the simple practice of breathing, with intent on a regular basis can help to decrease anxiety. But how does breathing decrease anxiety? And what does breathing have to do with yoga?
Breathing’s Impact on Anxiety
When we’re around someone who is having a panic attack, we might encourage them to calm down through breathing. ‘Take deep breaths, it’s gonna be okay.’ – but why do we encourage deep breaths when people are anxious, angry, or any other emotion that causes shallow, rapid breathing?
Shallow, rapid breathing is a symptom of an active sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ mode. While our ‘rest and digest’ mode is active (the parasympathetic nervous system), our breathing is slower and deeper.
What we experience can have an impact on our breathing. However, we can also influence our experience of emotion using our breath. When we are in shock, and we start to take long, deep breaths, we’re encouraging the body into our rest and digest mode. By breathing more deeply, we’re telling the nervous system we are safe.
Yoga and ‘The Breath’
So we know that the breath can be used to encourage the body out of stress mode and into rest-mode, but what does that have to do with yoga?
In yoga, we focus heavily on our breath. Many teachers will dedicate portions of their classes to practising a breathing exercise, and some styles of yoga have breathing techniques to accommodate the physical practice.
For example, Vinyasa yoga is a fast-paced yoga practise, traditionally coming into a new pose on every breath. On each inhale, we come up into a pose, and with each exhale, down into another. Vinyasa-Flow helps with strength building and stamina as we work with our body weight throughout the flow. There’s a very particular breathing technique used in these fast-paced styles of yoga called ‘Ujjayi breath’, otherwise known as ‘ocean breath’, as it gives an ocean sound to the breath.
This breathing technique helps practitioners remember to breathe with intent as they move through their practice, as it offers an audible cue and more breath control. It also helps practitioners keep momentum and stamina throughout their practice.
In slower styles of yoga, like restorative yoga, there is a heavy focus on meditation techniques and breathing exercises designed to calm the mind and body by encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system to activate. ‘The Breath’ is used as a tool in yoga to accommodate our physical practice and to calm the mind and body. You might be surprised at how quickly you notice a difference in your mood after practising yoga with a focus on the breath.
Instant Anxiety Relief?
Pretty much! Our breath rate increases when we’re anxious. While our breath rate is high, we are inhaling more oxygen and exhaling more carbon dioxide than usual. Because we aren’t using up any extra energy, our body isn’t producing any extra carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide is being expelled faster than it’s being produced, its concentration in the blood goes down. As a result of this change in CO2 blood concentration, we can begin to feel light-headed or might experience tingles in fingers and toes. We might also get clammy and sweaty.
Those symptoms go away once we are able to get our breathing back to its usual rate, at which point the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood also return to normal.
By deliberately relaxing the breath, we can start to feel better pretty instantly… especially if we’re already really good at relaxing the breath.
Long-term effects of frequently practising breathing exercises
We know that the breath can manipulate our experience in the body. If we take slow, deep breaths, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system and encourage rest and digest. But what if we could find a way to not feel anxious to begin with?
Our parasympathetic nervous system is a ‘business as usual’ system. It keeps the basic functions of our bodies working as they should be. When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and all the non-essential basic functions that the PSNS was managing get temporarily switched off, like digestion.
If we can use breathing as a technique to release anxiety, and we start practising breathing exercises whenever we’re feeling anxious, then we’re essentially training the body to get really good at getting out of ‘no-digestion-too-busy-reserving-energy-in-case-I-gotta-run’ mode (SNS) and into ‘back-to-digesting-my-burrito-and-napping’ mode (PSNS).
We can train our nervous system like it’s a muscle. If we can frequently encourage the body out of anxiety and into relaxation, the body will get really good at getting into, and staying in rest and digest mode. The body might start experiencing stresses that previously caused anxiety differently, as it feels safer and more comfortable in rest and digest mode. If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder like social anxiety or OCD and are undergoing treatment, these types of techniques can be used to accommodate your treatment plan.
Long-term Yoga Practice
Because there is such a focus on breathing throughout yoga classes, by practising yoga long-term, we’re also training our PSNS. A strong PSNS will help to decrease anxiety.
Why is breathing with intent so hard?
Breathing is easy, but breathing with intent to come out of stressful situations isn’t. We all have years of doing pretty much the opposite to contend with. When we feel stressed, we typically resolve whatever is stressing us out in order to ease the stress. When we’re tired, we keep going. When we’re sad, we say we’re fine, etc, etc…
Taking a moment out of your day to sit and breathe can be challenging for the simple reason that you don’t have time for it! You don’t have time to go to a yoga class. You might feel like you have too many other things going on in your life right now to start practising yoga or breathing or meditation.
The reality is, when we’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or frequently anxious, this is the moment that we should listen to that cue from our body. Your body is telling you something. Try to hear it, and give it what it needs. Feeling frequently anxious? Give a few weeks of regular yoga a try. If it doesn’t get you the results you want, then try something else.
Whatever you do, do something. Because you do not have to live with anxiety that takes over your life. If you’re concerned about your mental health and wellbeing, always speak with your healthcare providers.
Bob Brotchie is a counsellor, mindset consultant and creator of "Conscious Living by Design"™. He writes for Anglia Counselling, is featured on various other websites and introduces us to many guest writers all covering topics related to mental health and wellbeing.
Bob provides bespoke counselling services to individuals and couples in the privacy and comfort of a truly welcoming environment at his Anglia Counselling company office, located near Newmarket in Suffolk, England. Bob also provides professional online counselling, for local, national, and international clients. The therapeutic models offered are bespoke to the client’s needs, especially those in receipt of 'childhood emotional neglect' (CEN), whilst integrating a mindful approach to psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) principles. For clients experiencing trauma and/or phobia, Bob offers EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing).