What if it was simpler than you thought to reduce anxiety?
During my high school to early college years, I had panic attacks pretty regularly, mostly after significantly upsetting experiences. I would’ve done anything to reduce anxiety for myself, but aside from medication that I didn’t like, I didn’t know what else would help. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, then you know the feeling. Thoughts start racing and become overwhelming. The anxiety takes over not just your mind but also your body. Your heart starts pounding in your chest, and you forget how to breathe. Maybe your whole body starts to shake. If it’s a new experience for you, you might be afraid you’re dying because of the pain in your chest. Some people even end up going to the emergency room if their bodies don’t calm down after a few minutes.
Thankfully, this very rarely happens to me now. On one of those rare occasions last year, I let my thoughts run away to negative experiences in my life and became overwhelmed with worries and fears how those experiences would affect my future. The panic attack began, I couldn’t breathe, and I was crying at the same time. I ran upstairs and choked out the words to my husband, “I’m having a panic attack!”
“Breathe,” he told me. “Take a deep breath.” Because I was crying, my nose was so stuffed up I couldn’t get any air in. “I can’t,” I gasped.
“You have to. You’re a yoga teacher,” my husband reinforced. “You know how to breathe. You teach other people how to do it all the time. If you don’t breathe, I’m going to have to take you to the hospital.”
“Right. I got this,” I thought to myself. “I’ve never been to the hospital for a panic attack before, and I’m not about to go there now.” So I went into the bathroom and blew my nose as much as I could, then I started taking some slow, deep breaths through my nose. Almost instantly the panic attacked stopped. Like magic! After calming down, I was able to realize the panicky thoughts I was having were irrational and untrue, and that everything would be okay.
Isn’t it interesting how the very thing our mind is telling us we can’t do is the thing our body needs us to do to stop a panic attack in its tracks? If you ever feel yourself starting to experience anxiety in any form, you can practice this breathing technique. It will instantly calm down your body, which in turn, slows your thoughts and brings you down to a more relaxed state. Whether you’re in a mildly stressful situation, a heated argument, or a full-fledged state of panic, this technique can very effectively reduce anxiety.
How to Practice the Breathing Technique to Reduce Anxiety (1:2 Breath):
Note – this yogic breathing technique is intended to create relaxation. It’s best not to practice it in during the morning/work hours unless you’re experiencing anxiety.
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, or find a comfortable seated position and lengthen your spine from tailbone to the crown of your head. Start taking slow breaths in and out through your nose. Close your eyes if you’d like. When you inhale, breathe deeply, feeling your belly expand (shallow breaths are more likely to cause hyperventilation while deep breaths are relaxing). As you exhale, gently contract your belly, pulling it in and up.
Begin to count the duration of each inhalation and exhalation. If the inhale lasts longer, try to gradually adjust your breath until each inhalation and each exhalation take the same amount of time.
Once your breathing is even, start to increase the duration of the out-breaths, one second at a time. For example, if you breathe in for a count of 3, exhale for a count of 4. Keep gradually increasing the exhale length after every few breaths until each exhalation takes double the amount of time as each inhalation. i.e. Breathe in for 3 counts, breathe out for 6; or breathe in for 4, out for 8. This technique is called 1:2 ratio breathing. If you can’t double the exhalations, try your best to make them longer than the inhalations.
Why this breathing technique works
The long exhale is what is the most beneficial for cultivating relaxation. Breathing this way stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestion. The other main part of your autonomic nervous system is called the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system regulates your body temperature and activates the “fight or flight” response when it senses danger. When you’re anxious, the sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive. Activating the parasympathetic system will bring it back into the balance it needs. Basically, when functioning normally, the two parts keep each other in check, but sometimes they need a little extra help.
Next time you’re feeling stressed out or anxious, try the 1:2 breath to bring yourself back to balance. Does breath work take your problems away? Of course not. You and I both know that; however, when you reduce anxiety, your body and mind return to a calmer, more functional state. This helps you think more clearly to solve your problems and think rationally about whatever upset you. When your nervous system is in balance, it’s easier to come up with a plan of action or to seek advice from a coach, counselor, friend, or family member that can help you create one.
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