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  • Untangling Trauma

Let's Talk about Breathing

We are breathing all the time. It's one of our most basic life functions. When we are calm, breathing equilibrium is maintained by our automatic nervous system which maintains an optimal level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our body. In this blog post we are going to be discussing the relationship between breathing rate and anxiety and provide some practical breathing exercises to address stress. Hopefully learning a simple controlled breathing technique can help you better deal with stress.

When there is physical exertion like exercise, we breath heavier and faster. The heavier breathing is because of the need to bring more oxygen into the body because of the physical exertion. That is a normal human function and shows that our automatic nervous system is working properly to replace the oxygen that is being used. The normal rate of breathing is between 10-14 breaths per minute.

When encountering a stressful or anxious situation, hyperventilation is a common physical symptom in which the breathing rate goes over the normal 10-14 breaths per minute. The increased breathing rate is part of the body's natural flight or fight response as the additional intake of oxygen is used to prepare the body to respond to protect itself. This anxious and stressed breathing is problematic because there is no actual urgency. For example, people with anxiety about shopping alone at a grocery store may start hyperventilating as soon as they reach the grocery store even where there is no actual urgent danger. The body, however, through hyperventilation, is acting like there is an urgent danger.

Increased breathing without physical exertion, however, breaks the normal human equilibrium since the body is expelling too much carbon dioxide. This can manifest itself as dizziness, light-headedness and headache. The loss of breathing equilibrium can also lead to feelings of tingling in the upper extremities (arms) and lower extremities (legs) as well as muscle stiffness. These physical symptoms often result in people feeling exhausted or "on edge" due to over breathing. Therefore, they are more likely to respond to their surroundings while in a level of high anxiety. This can either result in a panicked response while confronting this situation or in the individual simply removing themself from the stressful situation. For someone who has anxiety with life tasks such as shopping alone at a grocery store, anxiety can have a significant negative impact on someone's ability to perform life tasks.

Working on calming and controlled breathing is one method of taking back control with situations that cause anxiety when there is no actual urgency. There are a number of ways to use controlled breathing to help with stress.

Here is one technique for helping slow down breathing when you are anxious:

  1. Find someplace to relax like a comfortable chair on laying down on a bed.

  2. Breath in for 4 seconds, preferably through the nose instead of the mouth.

  3. Hold that breath for 2 seconds.

  4. Release the breath slowly over 6 seconds. It is recommended to count out in your mind those 6 seconds to help calm down your mind.

  5. Repeat these steps a few times until your breathing has slowed down.

It is also recommended that when you breath in and out to use your stomach more than your chest. For belly breathing, imagine a ballon inside your stomach. Put your hands on your stomach and take a deep breath. If you feel your stomach going out from your body, that is a good deep belly breathe. If you feel your stomach going in, your diaphragm is not expanding and this would be a shallow chest breath. Practice belly breathing when you are relaxed. Imagine the ups and down of your belly like waves while feeling your breathing.

The more you practice, the easier and smoother your breathing will be. When you get familiar with good belly breathing, it will be easier to use when you are under stress.

Hopefully, this provides an introduction to the importance of breathing as a technique for handling stressful and anxious situations. Controlled breathing can bring your body back to equilibrium which provides a stronger basis for working with your emotions.


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