Breathing is one of the most crucial physiological functions of our bodies. It is automatic and controlled by the respiratory centre of the brain (1) but luckily, we also have the power to intentionally control and change our breathing.
Most people will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. Some people’s anxiety will be more intense, and they might have anxiety disorders. However, even without an anxiety disorder, there can be day-to-day occasions that might generate stress and anxiety, such as running late to an important event, moving to a different home, starting a new job or at a new school, amongst others.
The symptoms of anxiety can be particular for each person and can affect our bodies in various ways, but they usually involve rapid breathing and an increase in the heart rate. Other common symptoms can include a difficulty to concentrate, restlessness and sweating.
The relationship between breathing and anxiety.
Breathing and anxiety can feedback into each other (2). Changes in breathing can occur due to an increased level of anxiety while at the same time increased levels of anxiety can lead to changes in breathing. Therefore, breathing can be useful as a way to evaluate levels of anxiety and can also be understood as a tool that can influence anxiety levels (3).
For example, I can feel anxious because I realize that my breathing is now fast and irregular, making me think that something is wrong but I can also feel anxious because I just lost something important to me and this anxiety will lead to my breathing being fast and irregular.
Breathing and emotions.
So, what can we do to change our breathing and therefore reduce our anxiety?
Scientific studies have shown that controlling our breathing patterns and rate can help to manage stress and anxiety (5). According to research (6), different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, thus, changing how we are breathing can change how we are feeling. For example, when feeling joy, your breathing will be regular, deep and slow while when feeling anxious, your breathing will be fast, short and shallow (7).
Changing your breathing rhythm will send a signal of relaxation, your heart rate will slow down and stimulate the vagus nerve which goes from the brain stem to the abdomen and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system regulates the “rest and digest” activities, unlike the sympathetic nervous system which controls our “fight or flight” responses (8).
Therefore, when triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, your controlled, abdominal breathing will lead to physiological changes which include (1):
· lowered blood pressure and heart rate
· reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood
· reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue
· balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
· improved immune system functioning
· increased physical energy
· increased feelings of calm and wellbeing.
There are several breathing techniques which promote relaxation. The main aim is to be able to shift from breathing focussed on the upper chest to one focussed on the abdomen.
Here are some resources which detail the abdominal breathing technique:
· https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXjlR4mXxSk (for adults)
· https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiMb2Bw4Ae8 (for children)