While everyone feels anxious from time to time, one in five people lives under the influence of a potentially debilitating anxiety disorder. Typically, anxiety disorders are the result of a chemical imbalance within the brain, but they can also be triggered by personal trauma or the result of genetic predisposition.
While symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person, all types of anxiety can potentially affect your breathing patterns and increase your heart rate. You may have experienced episodes that made it feel nearly impossible to catch your breath. It’s frightening and very real. Anxiety can affect your ability to breathe and the way you breathe can also influence your anxiety levels. You can take control of the way you breathe to minimize anxiety breathing symptoms.
The Potentially Debilitating Symptoms of Anxiety
If you are living with one of the many forms of anxiety, you are painfully aware of the symptoms. You might feel as if your thoughts are racing and your body is trembling or sweating. You could feel like your heart is beating entirely too fast, or about to burst out of your chest. It can make falling asleep nearly impossible or wake you during the night. If you are currently living with an anxiety disorder, you may also recognize some of these symptoms:
- Feelings of impending doom
- Feeling tired or weak
- Digestive disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling tense or nervous
- Avoiding situations that trigger anxiety
Anxiety can be mild, or it can interfere with your life. One of the more debilitating, and often alarming, results is its ability to affect the way you breathe. Anxiety can quickly suck you into a vicious cycle of feeling like you can’t breathe, escalated anxiety, then increased breathing difficulties.
Why Anxiety Changes the Way You Breathe
Your brain and body are hardwired for instantaneous response to stress, regulated by the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system. When you feel scared or anxious, a rapid-fire sequence of hormonal changes and physical responses prepares you to flee or fight. Our ancestors needed this response for survival. Anytime you feel stressed or anxious, your body responds with the same chemical and physical reactions. It’s a natural process meant to protect you from danger.
The Autonomic Nervous System Triggers Hyperventilation
When you are relaxed, or not focused on your breathing, you may notice that you breathe slowly from your lower lungs, engaging your diaphragm. Under stress, when the hormones kick in, your adrenaline surges, your heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, and you start to breathe more rapidly. Your airways open wider. These changes happen so quickly that you may not be aware of them. If you are not engaged in a strenuous activity, this type of upper airway breathing can result in hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation is Triggered by Too Much Oxygen
Although you may feel like you cannot get enough air, the symptoms you feel are actually from over breathing. Your body is taking in too much oxygen and expelling too much carbon dioxide. So you still feel like you are not breathing enough, no matter how hard you try.
Those who are hyperventilating typically take quick, loud gasps of air. Hyperventilation can increase anxiety and make breathing even more difficult. You may feel like you are suffocating, choking or smothering. If you have ever hyperventilated, you felt the effects of too much oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. You may also have felt:
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling in your lips, hands, or feet
Thinking about the way you are breathing can also trigger hyperventilation. Trying to control your breathing can cause you to overcompensate and take in too much air. You may have developed a habit of inhaling deeply when you first notice changes in your breathing.
Overcompensation is Counterproductive
A quick intake of a large amount of air is often counterproductive. Taking in too much oxygen can also increase your feelings of anxiety. You are essentially signaling your brain to expect some type of conflict.
Shortness of breath can be terrifying. Feeling like you can’t get enough air into your lungs can intensify feelings of anxiety and create panic. Some people experiencing an attack can believe they are having a heart attack, further intensifying feelings of panic, and making breathing even more difficult.
Establish Calm by Engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System
You do not need to be hyperventilating for anxiety to affect your breathing, You may find, that under stress, you start breathing through your mouth. It’s very common, but mouth breathing is essentially an emergency function. To Your brain, you are justifying the emergency response. Your sympathetic nervous system will remain in high gear until your body has an indication that the threat has passed. You may have noticed that rapid shallow breathing can even trigger feelings of anxiety, or symptoms with no apparent trigger.
You can calm this sympathetic response, the rapid heart rate, and breathing difficulties, by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system response is like switching on an emergency brake to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, decrease your muscle tension and restore your breathing back to its pre-alerted, calm state.
Trigger a Relaxation Response by Breathing Through Your Nose
Resisting the urge to take in large amounts of air through your mouth can help you restore a calm breathing pattern. Breathing through your nose will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Changing your breathing pattern sends strong messages to your brain. When you work on breathing calmly, your brain will call off the alarm.
Many people find breathing exercises helpful for controlling their anxiety symptoms. Here are a few simple breathing exercises that may help keep your sympathetic nervous system, the alarm system, from running the show.
Reestablishing Your Natural Breathing Pattern
Gently inhale through your nose to fill your lower lungs, then exhale naturally. Your stomach should rise and fall, not your shoulders. Concentrate only on filling your lower lungs. This type of breathing is opposite of the type of breathing your body resorts to under stress. Breathing naturally through your nose, the type of breathing you should strive for throughout your day, can help keep the alarms from sounding.
Breathing to Influence Calmness
This exercise is most beneficial when used to release tension before it builds. It is recommended to use this exercise at least ten times each day to eliminate stress. Practicing will allow you to call upon the technique whenever you find your breathing affected by anxiety.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, pulling air into your lower lungs first, then upper
- Hold your breath for three second
- Exhale slowly through your lips as you relax your jaw, face, stomach, and shoulders
This exercise should help you reestablish feelings of calmness. Use it anytime you feel anxiety building or to calm yourself during panic or episodes of anxiety.
Count Down to Calming
This countdown exercise takes a bit longer, so it gives you time to concentrate on the process of breathing and a break from the thoughts triggered by anxiety. With your thoughts momentarily redirected, you will have a better chance of mastering their effects.
- Sit with your eyes closed
- Inhale through your nose slowly while thinking about the word “relax”
- Countdown with each slow exhales, beginning with ten until you have counted down to one
- When you reach one, imagine all the tension leaving your body, then open your eyes
Relaxed Measured Breathing
Ancient yogis recognized the ability to instill calm by changing the depth and pace of breathing. It is recommended to practice this exercise for up to thirty minutes every morning, and anytime you feel anxiety levels climbing.
- Inhale calmy through your nose for a count of six
- Exhale calmly through your nose for a count of six
Each count should represent one second. You can use this method discretely any time you feel anxious or stressed.
Adjust Your Breathing to Diffuse the Alarm System
Adjusting your oxygen levels may keep your anxiety from escalating. When anxiety makes it feel difficult to breathe, you can diffuse the alarm system by regulating your response. Activating your parasympathetic nervous system by breathing through your nose can help you regain a sense of calm and break the anxiety and breathing difficulties.
If you need further assistance to break the cycle of anxiety, consider enlisting the services of an experienced counselor or therapist. A qualified professional can help you learn effective techniques to minimize the burden of living with an anxiety disorder. Contact us for a personalized approach to help you overcome anxiety and take control of anxiety breathing problems.