Breathe: Reducing Anxiety – The Power of Breath

Anxiety: The power of breath

I wonder how many times you have heard the phrase, just breathe, take deep breaths or slow your breathing? Likely a few. But why? This article will help explain why these phrases are helpful, by explaining some of the physiological (bodily function) impacts that deep breathing has.

When feeling anxious or angry, belly or deep breathing (Diaphragmatic) can be a powerful way to help us out of fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system) and into rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system). It is something we can do anytime and anywhere; this will lower the stress response and stimulate the Vagus nerve (see below). Deep breathing also has a positive impact on heart rate variable (HRV). This is the measure of variability between heartbeats. When someone is in ‘fight or flight’ their HRV will be reduced. HRV is not the same as Heart Rate.

What is the Vagus nerve

It is the 10th cranial nerve and it contains pathways that contribute to the reBreathe Anxietygulation of many different functions, including the heart. One of the duties of the Vagus nerve is to warn us about danger, as well as scanning for safety cues. When we feel safe and calm, we feel more able to engage with others and open up. The Vagus nerve is why you feel calm and relaxed at home whilst watching TV yet have a racing heart and increased breathing when you sense a threat.

So why does slow deep breathing help?

In a nutshell: slow abdominal breathing is part of a loop. This feedback loop improves Vagal tone by initiating the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Also, when shallow or anxious breathing, levels of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide become imbalanced. This intensifies the physical sensations associated with anxiety such as lightheadedness.

Longer exhalations 

Longer exhalations are an easy way to stimulate the Vagus nerve, this will reduce the fight-or-flight stress responses, and improve HRV. This has been shown to relax and also improve decision making.

In diaphragmatic breathing, the belly expands and rises.  This movement of the diaphragm stimulates the Vagal nerve and the feedback loop commences.

Enough of the science, how do I do it?

It can be helpful to place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Imagine that with each breath in, a balloon is inflating in your belly, your lower hand will rise. When you breathe out, try to make the length longer than the inhalation.

There are many breathing techniques around. To begin with, you may find it tricky, particularly if it is something new. Many techniques advise breathing in for 5,6 all the way up to 10 and then the same or slightly longer when exhaling. This may be challenging, therefore do what feels comfortable and look to increase it as you become more practised and relaxed. Soothing Rhythm breathing: inhale for 5 and exhale for 5 is utilised in Compassion Focussed Therapy.

Making something part of a routine will lead to a habit, perhaps try to find a few minutes each day at the same time to practice.  Deep and slow breathing that moves the diaphragm is part of many mediation traditions as well as yoga, tai-chi and Qigong. The ancients knew it was helpful; they just didn’t have modern science to explain the reasons why. Bringing in yoga, particularly focussing on pranayama (breathing) will be helpful. There are also many breathing apps available.

Further Reading

FBPsS, P. G. P. (2010). Training Our Minds in, with and for Compassion An Introduction to Concepts and Compassion-Focused Exercises.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company

Gerritsen, R. J., & Band, G. P. (2018). Breath of life: the respiratory vagal stimulation model of contemplative activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience12, 397.

De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A., & Gidron, Y. (2019). How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology139, 1-9.


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