Our bodies are amazing. They pay attention and respond instinctively to everything around us, even when we’re not aware of it. As the body takes in physical sensations, it also sends them as messages to the brain, which can affect our emotions and mood.
Our body automatically responds to stress and anxiety through the fight-or-flight system. When this happens, automatic systems such as breathing and heart rate increase. This is to help prepare us to respond physically to threats, even if it’s not an actual threat we’re facing.
Thankfully, we can take a proactive role in slowing these reactions down and achieving a calmer state. Breathing exercises are one of the key ways to do this.
The nervous system isn’t just one system. Rather, it is made up of several systems. Two of these are the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Ideally, these two work to balance each other out and restore equilibrium.
The sympathetic system creates the reactions we associate with anxiety: faster heart rate, shallow breathing, flushing, trembling and muscle tension. These are the hallmarks of the fight-or-flight system. These changes occur when the brain perceives fear and releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
People who struggle with anxiety often get trapped in this system. Fight-or-flight reactions can turn into a feedback loop. Without intentional steps to interrupt the reaction, it can create chaos in your life.
Restoring Balance Through Breathing Exercises
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is what is responsible for returning the body to calm after stress or fear. It gives the “all clear” signal and slows breathing and heart rate back to normal.
When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, breathing exercises are one of the fastest, most trustworthy ways to help yourself relax. Being overwhelmed, rushing through your days to get everything accomplished, and anxiety itself can all cause your breathing to be too shallow and fast. You may not even realize this is happening.
Intentionally focusing on your breathing, however, can remedy this. Our bodies thrive on oxygen. When we are breathing too fast, our lungs aren’t able to take in the amount of oxygen we need in order to fully oxygenate our blood and tissues. This can create an anxious feeling.
Breathing exercises help restore adequate oxygen levels. There are many different exercises, but these are some of my favorite ones.
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing
The name sounds complicated, but this technique isn’t.
Basically, you want to gently use two fingers to alternate closing off each nostril as you breathe. Sit up straight and comfortably. Start with whatever nostril you prefer. Gently hold the other one closed. Breathe in through the open one.
Then, close that one and open the other one. Exhale and inhale through this. Continue this cycle for ten rounds if you can.
2. 4-7-8 Breathing
Press your tongue against the front part of your hard palate near your upper teeth. With this exercise, begin by inhaling slowly for four counts. Hold your breath for the count of seven. Then exhale to the count of eight, creating a “whooshing” sound as you do. Repeat.
3. Box Breathing
This exercise also involves counting your breaths. However, all the counts will be two four. Exhale to the count of four. Hold your breath to the count of four. Then, inhale deeply to the count of four. Hold the oxygen in your lungs to the count of four and then exhale again to four. Repeat.
Why These Work
As described above, intentional, deep breathing tells our bodies that it’s okay to relax. They bring oxygen into our blood. It triggers the parasympathetic system, also known as the rest and digest system. As this happens, anxiety will decrease, and our body will start to calm.
Incorporating counting into your breathing adds a soothing element and gives you something to focus on. Our physiological systems respond to rhythm and our brain can calm down more easily when it’s distracted.
Stress and anxiety don’t have to control your life. With steps such as these, you can learn to manage these emotions better. If you’d like to learn more about how to improve stress, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain, contact our office.