During a state of acute anxiety, stress or panic, one of the first noticeable physical changes to take place is the way we breathe. As we become more aroused, the body attempts to draw in more oxygen. This corresponds with an increase in adrenaline and other stress hormones. In some people the situation seems to escalate very rapidly to a point where they may hyperventilate. Learning to control breathing is a key element to controlling and resolving stress, and preventing panic.
Breathing is a totally involuntary act. Our nervous system enables us to go about our daily business and then sleep deeply without giving breathing a second thought. But, as everyone knows, we can choose to override this process simply by holding our breath or breathing more rapidly or more slowly. The fact we are able to exert this level of control is important when it comes to controlling stress reactions.
Put someone under pressure and his or her breathing starts to change. Typically, breathing becomes shallow and more rapid causing an imbalance in the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. It can lead to a feeling of light-headedness and a general feeling of unpleasantness.
By learning to recognize what’s happening the good news is that a variety of breathing techniques can help to redress this imbalance and rapidly reduce symptoms. Ideally, you would use them alongside the time you have put aside for a more ‘formal’ session, perhaps a relaxed breathing and imagery exercise? Here are just a few techniques to try:
For a breathing technique to be effective you must consider your posture. Don’t lean or slouch forward as this restricts your chest. Sit or stand straight with your shoulders back.
If you draw in air rapidly your body will become more aroused and your stress or panic symptoms will increase. Therefore, during a moment of acute anxiety, try to focus more on exhaling. Take in a good deep breath by placing your hand over your stomach and filling your lungs so you feel your stomach (not just your chest] expand. Then, take twice as long to exhale. Feel as though you are exhaling more than you are inhaling.
Some people find it beneficial to hold their breath for a few moments and then to breathe out slowly. On your first attempt take a deep breath, hold it for a couple of seconds and breathe out slowly. For many people this is enough, but by all means try again if it hasn’t worked. Next time try slowing your intake of air to a slow count of three and then exhale to a slow count of five.
Close your eyes (obviously not if you’re driving or in a situation that could be dangerous) and breathe in through your nose to the count of three. Open your eyes and breathe out to the count of five but focus on what is happening around you. Take in the sights and sounds of things around you. Make a conscious effort to see, for example, the color and size of flowers around you. The trees, or buildings, which is taller, which direction they throw shadows, how dark are the shadows and so on.
This isn’t a memory test, it’s simply a way for you to focus on issues outside of your own body. A little like looking at a picture where you wouldn’t start counting the buildings or number of sheep in the field, you would look at the composition and soak in the detail.
Taking control of breathing is central to staying calm. You may at first feel a little light headed but this is only the body telling you an effect is taking place, and it’s the one you need. Practice breathing techniques regularly and check your posture from time to time in order to make sure you aren’t constricting your chest.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.