With Anxiety, Your Breath is Boss!

Your breath has a VIP relationship with your nervous system.

That’s right, no middleman (or woman :-). Your breath enjoys a direct line to the culprit that makes us feel like we’re freaking out or feel as calm as a cucumber, your nervous system. And it has this privilege any time it wants. Night, day, rain, shine, it doesn’t matter. Your breath is that important!

So why, when we’re anxious, do we spend so much time trying to communicate with the non-decision makers? The mid-level managers? The second string? Why do we mentally berate ourselves or plead with our racing thoughts to just calm down already? Or try to claw our way out of a mental downward spiral with logic and reasoning, even though that hasn’t worked the last 999 times we tried it?

It’s okay, you’re in good company. We all start this way. We are so conditioned to believe that our brain is the end-all-be-all that we often totally overlook the power of our body and breath. And in this case, our breath is boss.

But knowledge is power! Actually knowledge followed by consistent daily practice is power! SO, here you go. The next time you start to feel your anxiety rising, go directly to your C suite for solutions, your breath.

Specifically slowing down your breath. And exhaling longer than your inhale.

That last part may sound weird but let me explain. When we breathe, we inhale and exhale. I know you know that but bare with me. Often we get in the habit of inhaling and exhaling mainly from our chest area which, truth be told, is not a very satisfying way to breathe for our brain or body (but that is for another article.) Optimally, we should breathe slowly, deeply, and rhythmically from our belly not our chest.

Further breaking down our breathing mechanics, our exhale informs our parasympathetic nervous system which controls our rest-and-digest functions. And our inhale informs our sympathetic nervous system which controls our fight-or-flight functions. Think of it like your parasympathetic nervous system as your body’s brakes and your sympathetic nervous system your body’s gas.

Now, when we start feeling anxious, our breathing typically turns to fast and shallow inhales with barely an exhale to speak of. When this happens, we typically feel even more anxious because it revs up our fight-or-flight response. What we need instead is our brake response.

Enter the exhale. When you start feeling anxious, make a concerted effort to change your breathing pattern. You want to consciously exhale longer than your inhale. And as you are doing that, you want to slow down your breathing altogether.

So how exactly do you do this? Count. Count the “seconds” of your inhale and the seconds of your exhale, making your exhale longer. You may start out inhaling for 2, exhaling for 3. No problem, start wherever you are. Then your next few breaths try inhaling for 3, exhaling for 5. And continue until your breathing has slowed down and your anxiety is starting to dissipate.

Counting serves as a bonus in that it puts your attention onto something other than your whirling dervish anxious mind.

Give it a try and let me know how Boss your breath is!