Written by Jill Clingan
Last week two dear friends, Ann and Bernice, visited us from Maine. I was having a stressful, anxious week, and more than once I worried I was not being as present with them as I wanted to be. Also more than once, and on separate occasions, they gently suggested that I stop and breathe. One evening, I rushed into the car where Ann had been waiting for me for at least five minutes, plopped down in my seat, and gasped, “Okay, I’m ready now. Sorry you’ve been waiting for me.” Ann said, “It’s okay. Just breathe.” I responded with something like, “Okay. Right. Good idea,” and continued to put my car in reverse and start to back out of my driveway. My friend then smiled at me and said gently, “No, actually stop and breathe—in…and out…in…and out….”
I did not want to stop and breathe, to be perfectly honest. I was breathing shallowly from a stressful day, from being in a hurry, from anxiety, from worry, and it felt impossible to switch out those shallow breaths for some deep ones.
And it was hard, but I did it. They weren’t very deep breaths. I don’t think a whole lot of oxygen made it through my lungs and dispersed throughout the rest of my tense body, but it was a start.
Since that day, I have become more aware of my breathing (and my lack thereof). Last week I had a writing deadline for a company I had never worked with. I noticed my breath quickening and becoming more shallow as I started reading an email from someone in the corporate office that I was convinced would say I had done a horrible job writing the articles (it did not, in fact, say this). I am on a family road trip, and yesterday evening we were driving on fast, two-line highways in a heavy, driving rain in southern Arkansas. With each semi that came barrelling toward us, I held my breath, only to exhale and breathe normally until the next semi sped our direction. I want to tell you that each time I noticed I was anxiously, shallowly breathing or holding my breath, I paused to breathe in…and out…in…and out…. I did not. However, sometimes I did manage to intentionally change my breathing at least a little bit. I can’t say that I was gulping air, but I was at least doing more than sipping it.
So, if breathing shallowly doesn’t actually help us relax, why do we do it? As Michelle DeMarco, Ph.D., explains, “When we’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. Our heart rate and blood pressure rise, our breathing quickens, our muscles tighten, and all nonessential functions, like digestion, become dormant. All of these physiological tectonics have a significant effect on our cognition and behavior” including making our breathing become more shallow. The problem with shallow breathing, according to DeMarco, is that “it can put the body into a cyclic state of stress because it is both the cause and the result of the problem: Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing causes stress.”
Dr. DeMarco suggests some helpful breathing techniques (some of which I had never heard of before!) to help us slow down, breathe, and reduce our stress and anxiety.
This technique is simply slowing down our breathing. We typically breathe 10-14 times per minute, but with conscious breathing, we slow that down to five to seven breaths a minute. One simple way to practice this exercise is to count to five as you breathe in slowly, hold your breath for a moment, and then breathe out slowly as you count to ten.
This type of breathing is helpful because it grounds us and helps us become more aware, both of our breathing and the sensations around us. To practice cellular breathing, lie on your back, and place one hand on your heart and the other hand on your belly. As you lie on the ground, notice how it feels—the hard, coolness of the floor or the soft fuzziness of the carpet, for example. Then, start to notice the weight of your hands on your skin and the rhythm of your breath. You don’t need to focus on a specific breathing pattern here; just focus on your breathing. Turn your focus, then, to your hand on your belly. Feel your hand rise as your belly fills with air and fall as your belly empties the air. It can also be helpful to imagine your breath as a wave, rising as you inhale, cresting at the top, and then falling as you exhale.
Active and Calming Breathing
Stand on the ground and notice the feel of the ground under your feet. Then, inhale as deeply as you can, and as you exhale, loudly make a “Shhhhhh” sound until your body is emptied of air. Do this seven more times.
This time, inhale as deeply as you can, and then make an “mmmm” sound as you fully empty your lungs. Pay attention to how the vibration of this sound feels in your head as you breathe out. Do this seven more times.
Open Your Heart
This breathing technique is especially helpful for anxiety. In a seated position, place your hands on your shoulders so your elbows face forward. As you breathe in, raise your shoulders up and around into a stretch with your elbows up over your head. As you breathe out, count to eight, and bring your elbows back around in front of you as you curl forward, tucking your chin. Do this until you start to feel calmer.
Set Free the Belly
This is basically the cat-cow yoga position, and it helps calm the gut, which, as you likely know if you have IBS or get an upset stomach when you are anxious, is connected with the nervous system. Start on your hands and knees (in tabletop position). Arch your back and lower your belly as you slowly inhale (cow position). Then, curve your back up toward the sky as you slowly exhale (cat position).
This technique was developed by trauma researcher Dr. Peter Levine. It helps you relax because its combination of breathing and vocalization causes your body to vibrate its internal organs and muscles. First, become aware of your surroundings. Then, either close your eyes or, if you are too anxious to do so, cast a soft gaze downward past your nose. Breathe in and out, and as you do, imagine the sound of a foghorn. Then, breathe in, and when you breathe out, make the low (it doesn’t have to be loud) sound a foghorn makes: “voooooooooooooo.” Repeat this breathing exercise until you feel calmer.
Rib Cage Expansion
This simple technique is especially helpful if you are having a panic attack. To perform this technique, put your left hand on top of your head and a finger from your right hand between your rib cage. You don’t have to take a deep breath here—just breathe deeply enough so that you can feel your rib cage expand. DeMarco explains, “This expansion causes the intercostal muscle (the muscle that connects your ribs together, stabilizes your upper body, and helps you to breathe) to stretch. As it does, a stretch receptor fires, which signals the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and override the fear, bringing you back to a state of calm and safety.”
Of course, sometimes, no matter how many breathing exercises we try, we need to get some extra help with our anxiety and stress. As noted in a previous blog post on the benefits of breathwork, Nancy Jenkins, a counselor here at Prairie Wellness Counseling, LLC, uses breathwork to help clients process trauma, relieve chronic pain, and manage stress and anxiety. If you want more information about breathwork and would like to schedule an appointment with Nancy, call/text us at (816)974-7378 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The quotes and breathing techniques from this blog post are from Michelle DeMarco, Ph.D.’s article “7 Surprising Breathing Exercises to Instantly Reduce Stress: Conscious Breathing, Cellular Breathing, and Other Easy Techniques to Feel Calmer,” https://elemental.medium.com/7-surprising-breathing-exercises-to-instantly-reduce-stress-9cbb61a1d635).