For those who are detrimentally impacted by anxiety, it may not seem like it, but anxiety can be helpful in certain situations.
It keeps us alert and on our toes before we play in a big game.
A modicum of anxiety can help motivate you to prepare more for a big test or presentation you have coming up in school.
Anxiety can serve as an early warning sign to let you know that something isn’t going quite right in your life and, as the early 2000’s movie put it, Something’s Gotta Give.
Sometimes your nervous system can go a little haywire though and what was once a small amount of anxiety every so often compounds until it seems to be taking over your entire life.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for:
- Decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure
- Inhibiting adrenaline production
- Relaxing muscles
- Restoring the body to a state of calm
- Inhibits release of glucose
To put it simply, your PNS is your body’s maintenance mode and, if you have anxiety, there’s a high likelihood you aren’t spending nearly enough time in a parasympathetic state. That means your body isn’t getting enough time to rest and recharge the way it needs to!
Your SNS only needs to be activated during a life-threatening event like if you needed to run away from a bear, but anything your mind deems perceives as a threat will trigger it. That chronic anxiety you’re having? It’s probably triggering your SNS.
Then, as you spend less time in your PNS, your anxiety just compounds and compounds. It’s a vicious circle unless you learn tools that can help you calm down.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for:
- Controlling the bodies response during a life-threatening event
- Dilating pupils
- Releasing adrenaline
- Dilating bronchial tubes
- Shutting down functions not critical to survival like digestion
- Accelerates heart rate
- Stimulating the release of glucose for easy energy
- Secreting epinephrine and norepinephrine
Basically, your SNS shuts down any part of your body not needed to help you survive a life-threatening event and puts your body into a highly alert mode. If you spend too much time in this state it’s like trying to sprint as fast as you can for more than just a few minutes.
You can see why having a tool like breathwork to calm down your body and activate your PNS would be helpful!
So now that you know the why, let’s get to the how.
How to practice breathwork for lowering anxiety
Breathwork is an amazing practice for anxiety because it’s with you wherever you go and you can do a lot of the practices without bringing any attention to yourself. The key to using breathwork to calm your anxiety is practice!
I suggest practicing breathwork at least two times a week for 10 to 15 minutes each using one of the methods mentioned below.
It’s also important to bring awareness to your breath a few times each day to reinforce what you’re learning and train your body.
Try getting in touch with your breath whenever you have a lull in the day.
Are you waiting in line at the supermarket? Instead of picking up your phone, try to just take five slow inhales and exhales.
Sitting in your car waiting for your child to get done with soccer practice? Just meditate by listening to the rhythm of your breath for two minutes.
Practicing your breathwork allows you to learn how your body feels when it’s truly relaxed and teaches you how to tap into that new baseline on the regular.
Box breathing is probably one of the most well-known breathwork methods out there. Therapists and psychologists often teach this to their patients.
It’s called box breathing because your inhale, hold at the top of the inhale, exhale, and hold at the bottom of the exhale will all be four seconds long.
Step 1: Find a place to sit comfortably.
Step 2: Inhale slowly for four breaths. Make sure to breathe deeply filling up your lower belly as much as possible.
Step 4: Hold at the top of the inhale for four seconds.
Step 5: Exhale for four seconds as your belly pulls in closer to your spine.
Step 6: Hold at the bottom for four seconds.
Step 7: Repeat
Step 1: Find a place to sit comfortably.
Step 2: Inhale for four seconds filling up your lower belly.
Step 3: Hold at the top of your inhale for seven seconds.
Step 4: Exhale for eight seconds. If you have a hard time exhaling this long, try exhaling as if you’re blowing through a straw.
This is one of my favorites for relaxing my body and putting me into a happier mood. You’ll see why in a second!
Step 1: Find a place to sit comfortably. You can do this cross-legged or sit on your heels.
Step 2: Inhale deeply through your nose.
Step 3: Exhale through your mouth making the sound “ha”. You can put your hand in front of your mouth and try to push it away with your breath. As you’re exhaling, make your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out stretching it down to your chin.
Step 4: During your next inhale, relax your face.
Step 5: Repeat
You might feel super weird doing it at first, but laughter is one of the best medicines out there!
The next time you feel the anxiety starting to creep in or you’re feeling overwhelmed try and take a quick pause to bring awareness to your breath and slow it down. Over time, the mindset shifts that breathwork can cause will help you begin to see things in a new, more relaxed, light!