One of my favorite coping skills for my anxiety is something that we do approximately 22,000 times a day. Breathe.
I have come to appreciate the power of my breath throughout my journey with heightened anxiety since my son was born because I can use it to “hack” the systems in my body that my anxiety activates. More specifically, anxiety activates my sympathetic nervous system. This system causes things like shallow breathing, racing heart, sweating and restlessness.
If you are familiar with the survival responses of fight and flight, both of these responses are activated by this system.
When I take time to attune to my breath, I can down-regulate this sympathetic nervous system. I can send messages to my body to instead calm down and activate the opposite system to the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system.
An important way to signal to the body to activate that parasympathetic nervous system is to breathe with a longer exhale. It may seem like a minor shift in our breathing and a minute aspect to attune to, but the effects of this has often been the difference between me staying in the clenched grasp of my anxiety or regaining some control and progressing towards healthy management of it.
Here are some of my favorite breathing techniques. In all of these exercises, I recommend finding a comfortable seated or standing position and placing a hand on your stomach and a hand on your heart. These breathing exercises aim to engage in deep breathing, so your belly should expand as you breathe versus more shallow breathing where the belly stays flat. Set a time for a few minutes and allow yourself space to attune to your breath.
- Inhale in for 4 counts, exhale out for 8 (feel free to vary the counts to what feels comfortable for you, just be sure to keep a longer exhale).
- 4-7-8 Breathing: Inhale in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, exhale for 8
- Alternate Nostril Breathing: Move one of your hands up to your nose. Have your thumb on the side of one nostril, your pointer and middle finger up on the bridge of your nose, your ring finger on the side of the other nostril, and your pinky can hang to the side. Press one nostril closed and breath in 4 counts, switch which nostril is open and exhale for 8 counts, breath in for 4 counts, switch which nostril is open and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat.
In whose hand is the life of every living thing,Job 12:10
And the breath of all mankind?
Kylie Larson, MA, LPC