What I’m talking about here is learning a specific technique of conscious breathing, which is quite different from what we do moment-to-moment as part of our daily living.
If you take a minute to become aware of your breathing right now, you’ll find you are probably breathing short, shallow breaths into your lungs. This is how most of us breathe most of the time – unconsciously.
When you’re feeling anxious, you tend to unconsciously “overbreathe” with shorter, faster breaths into the lungs and chest.
This creates an imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide which can result in symptoms including:
racing heart, breathlessness, dizziness, hot flashes or chills, and distorted thinking such as fear that something terrible will happen.
The Deep Breath Myth
There is a common misconception that taking a “deep” breath is the key. While the deep breath may be useful for some purposes, it is not the best for calming anxiety.
When you take a deep breath, you are making a sudden and significant change to your breath. Your amygdala (the “caveman” part of the brain that regulates the fight-or-flight response) does NOT like sudden change. Instead of relaxing, your brain goes on high alert when there is any sudden change because your amygdala wants to make sure there is no sabretooth tiger coming to threaten your safety.
Your brain can relax when breathing is calm, even and predictable, without sudden change.
Master the specific technique
The specific form of Mindful Belly Breathing described here is designed to reduce anxiety by calming your brain AND creating a real physiological change for your nervous system (activating the parasympathetic nervous system).
This can only be done by using the proper technique consisting of 2 parts:
1. lowering the focus of your breathing to the belly/diaphragm area (diaphragmatic breathing)
2. controlling the pace and size of each inhale and exhale (respiratory control).
This breathing technique is Mindful due to the addition of respiratory control. Diaphragmatic breathing alone can be helpful for many things, but what makes Mindful Belly Breathing so effective for anxiety is the combination of Mindful respiratory control + Belly Breathing.
Mindful Belly Breathing can be done anywhere, anytime! I teach this to most of my clients and literally every single client has reported a benefit from Mindful Belly Breathing.
How to do it:
1. Place one hand on your belly.
2. Inhale and exhale through your nose only, with each breath “normal-sized” and comfortable for you.
3. Lower the focus of your breathing by slowing pushing out your belly/diaphragm as you inhale and slowly pulling in your diaphragm as you exhale. Imagine a balloon in your belly that fills with each inhale and deflates with each exhale.
4. Notice the movements of your hand: you should see your hand moving up and down on your stomach as you breathe.
5. Now pace your breathing in a predictable and even way by silently saying to yourself:
“Inhale – 2 – 3 – Relax… Exhale – 2 – 3 – Relax”[pullquote]Want help learning Mindful Belly Breathing?
You may like my downloadable Less Stress Now CD.[/pullquote]
How you know it’s working
Here’s a little test to show you what a big difference Mindful Belly Breathing makes:
1. Stand up and just breathe normally
2. Look into a full-length mirror. Look sideways so you can see your profile. Go ahead and suck in your stomach to look your best (yes, we all do that sometimes!).
3. Now breathe while still holding your stomach in. Notice that only your chest is moving up and down with each breath. This is more or less what happens when anxiety kicks in. Notice how the airflow is restricted. Notice the pace of your breath. Does this create any feelings of anxiety or discomfort?
4. Let your stomach relax now and re-start your Mindful Belly Breathing. Notice how much more air you’re taking in now. Notice the sense of calm this brings.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Like any new skill or tool, Mindful Belly Breathing requires practice. You want this tool available to you in times of extreme anxiety, right?
Well, in those moments of anxiety your ability to think straight and remember what to do next can be very limited. In order to break that cycle, you need to be able to start Mindful Belly Breathing automatically – your body will remember what to do only if you’ve practiced regularly.
Make Mindful Belly Breathing a daily habit and it’s an investment…you’ll be able to use it anytime, anywhere to help you break free from anxiety. Regain control of your breath, your clear thinking, your physical/body sensations, and your life!