Some of the most valuable and useful tools I teach people in counseling are breathing exercises. If you struggle with anxiety, stress, or anger then breathing exercises are for you! Sometimes I get clients who scoff at the idea when I bring it up, but the way you breathe is actually really important. We’re going to cover 2 things about breathing in this post: why the way you breath is so important and how to breath to relax and combat anxiety, stress, anger, and even fear. I also recorded my first YouTube video for this post, so be sure to check that out!
Turns out you and most people you know probably breathe totally wrong. I will cover the why of this in my video, but before that, lets briefly talk about the chemistry of breathing. When we breathe, we take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide as waste. When you breathe calmly, at a normal rate the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood is kept in balance and you function normally. When we exercise our bodies use up more oxygen. Because the body is using more oxygen, it is also producing more carbon dioxide. Balance is maintained by breathing faster to get in more oxygen and get out more carbon dioxide.
When we’re anxious, scared, angry, or stressed we tend to do one of two things with our breathing: we either hyperventilate (taking rapid, shallow breaths) or we hypoventilate (not breathing enough). Both of these situations essentially unbalance the ratio of oxygen to CO2 in your bloodstream, making your blood more acidic or alkaline. When you hyperventilate you are taking in a lot more oxygen, like you would if you were exercising, but you’re not producing as much CO2 as you would when exercising because your body isn’t using up all that oxygen. In this situation you end up with a condition called respiratory alkalosis which can make you feel lightheaded, dizzy, confused, tingly, and (more) anxious. This is why people breathe into paper bags to control hyperventilating. Doing so essentially makes you breathe in more carbon dioxide, which balances out all the excess oxygen in your system and restores your PH balance. Alternatively, (and less commonly) when you hypoventilate you end up with what is called respiratory acidosis which can cause headache, confusion, restlessness, and anxiety. The point of all this is that if you’re breathing “badly” then you’re setting yourself up to be more prone to anxiety and physical symptoms that can cause/worsen stress and anger. It turns out, the PH balance in your body has a significant effect on anxiety.
Now we’ll talk about some things you can do to calm down and use your breathing to combat anxiety, stress, and anger. For a while now I’ve been looking for some good videos to illustrate this topic, but I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for, so I made my own. This is the first video I have personally made for this counseling blog. I hope you find it helpful.
And then because my camera cut off and I’m horribly inexperienced at this: The conclusion:
***Addendum: If you you ever get the chance to spend some time with a baby or toddler, watch them breathe. You’ll notice that they naturally breathe with their bellies. We are all naturally born doing this, but over time, with exposure to stresses in life this starts to change. Many (maybe most) of us stress breathe. We carry our stress in our bodies. Much like you might tense your shoulders/neck if you’re stressed and not notice it, stress changes our breathing patterns and it takes someone pointing it out and practice to realize something isn’t right.***
When you get good at these breathing exercises you can begin to customize them to your own liking. In some ways this type of thing can be a deeply personal experience that is different for each person. One thing a lot of people do is to repeat a mantra or make some kind of sound on exhale. Most commonly it will be a sound that makes a deep rumble like the common mantra Om that you’ve probably seen in movies or tv where people say ooooooooooommmmmmmmm on exhale.
I wrote a post a month or so about mindfulness that since publishing I have been using in my own breathing exercises. You might remember this one: Here Comes a Thought. I’m not sure if they intentionally did this, but there are pieces of the song in the video on this post that are perfect for singing on exhale:
*inhale count of four just like the square* then -exhale-“But its not, but its not, but its not, but its not, but its not.”
*inhale* -exhale- “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok”
*inhale* -exhale- “you’ve got nothing, got nothing, got nothing, got nothing to fear”
*inhale* -exhale- “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here”
-this is repeated 2 times in the song.
I’ve been using this occasionally when I do breathing exercises. The point is that once you get good at it, you can personalize your breathing exercises and really make them your own.
So take this information and go work on your breathing!
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, stress, anger management, or even past traumas, counseling can help you. Consider giving me a call sometime and we can talk about what is going on and how counseling could help you.