If you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, it’s inevitable that, at some point, you will have been told to ‘take a few deep breaths’. This kind of advice is often annoying, and when you’re in the grip of a panic attack, the last thing you want to think about is your breathing. However annoying it may seem in the moment, there are genuine therapeutic benefits to deep breathing. Read on to find out more.
Calm Body, Calm Mind
There are definite physical advantages to deep breathing. Filling your lungs deeply with air oxygenates the blood more effectively. This helps every cell in your body to function better, including the neurons of your brain, which in turn helps your brain deal with whatever you’re going through in a calmer and more effective manner.
However, the main benefit of deep breathing is the way in which it can force the mind into a state of calm. Deep, regular breathing, when it occurs naturally, is a ‘symptom’ of calm. It means that all is well, and that the body and mind can proceed as normal. When we breathe deeply and regularly, we are mimicking the symptoms of bodily calm
. And this has a powerful effect. In fact, researchers recently discovered that a cluster of neurons in the brain-stem referred to as the breathing pacemaker links directly to another brain-stem structure – the locus coeruleus.
It is the locus coeruleus that determines the overall level of arousal (read: anxiety) of the brain and body. Since the breathing pacemaker is linked directly to the locus coeruleus, our rate of breathing directly determines our state of arousal/anxiety; the quicker the breath, the more aroused/ anxious we are, and vice versa- the slower the breath, the less aroused, and more calm, we are. From the brain-stem it is the vagus nerve that immediately transfers the ‘message’ about your deep, regular breathing to the rest of the body, disrupting the previous level of stress mediated by the sympathetic nervous system, enhancing the parasympathetic system and restoring balance and calm. The longer you breathe slowly and deeply, the more insistent this ‘calm’ message becomes.
Bringing balance and calm to your nervous system through deep breathing is a great way to combat anxiety
. When we’re stressed, we tend to develop ‘tunnel vision” together with rigid patterns of thought. The state of calm brings a certain sense of perspective with it, from which you can begin to work on the root causes of your anxiety.
How To Do It
Almost anyone can enjoy the benefits of deep breathing. Techniques differ, so you may want to read around a bit to find something that works for you. However, the essence of the thing is pretty much universal: Take a deep, long breath in, a “belly breath”, relaxing your abdominal muscles so your diaphragm can fully expand; hold it for a second, then breathe out slow and long.
For relaxation purposes, the exhale is the important bit. Letting out the air – from the very bottom of your lungs – seems to have a more ‘calming’ effect than breathing in. As for rate, aim for 5-7 breaths per minute. This rate, besides calming the nervous system, actually syncs the diaphragm with the circulatory system, decreasing the hearts workload pumping blood. If it helps, visualize the cloud of anxiety leaving your body as you do so.