Breathing Technique for Anxiety
Yoga and Mental Health Series
If you’ve read my “about” page, then you know a combination of mental health issues and recovering through yoga is what led me to become a yoga teacher. For the next few blog posts, I’m going to be writing within the topic of mental health. Living with anxiety and depression since childhood and post traumatic stress disorder in my early 20s, I understand how lonely, confusing, and all-around difficult life can be when you’re dealing with mental health issues. If you are struggling with your mental health, I want you to know that you are not alone, and if life got easier for me, it can for you, too. I want to show you how it’s possible.
Missed Part 1 of the series? Read it here.
Part 2: Breathing Technique for Anxiety
I used to have panic attacks pretty regularly in my late high school to early college years, mostly after significantly upsetting experiences. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, then you know the feeling. Your thoughts become overwhelming, and 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. Your whole body might be shaking. 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 a couple of months ago, 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, whether it’s in a mildly stressful situation, a heated argument or a full-fledged state of panic, you can practice this breathing technique to instantly calm down your body, which in turn, slows your thoughts and brings you down to a more relaxed state.
How to Practice the Breathing Technique for 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, just try your best to make them longer than the inhalations.
The long exhale is what is the most beneficial for cultivating relaxation. Breathing this way stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system – the part of your autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for rest and digestion. The other main division of your autonomic nervous system is called the sympathetic nervous system, and it 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 and needs to be brought back to balance by activating the parasympathetic system. 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. Sharing is caring – please share this post with others if you found it helpful for reducing your anxiety.
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Disclaimer: The yoga therapy components of my teaching are based on my personal life experiences with mental illness and study of relevant subjects, and are not derived from my status as a RYT with Yoga Alliance Registry.