Breathing is a necessity of life that usually occurs without much thought. When you breathe in air, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a waste product that is carried back through your body and exhaled. Improper breathing can upset the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange and contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, fatigue and other physical and emotional disturbances.
Is the Way You’re Breathing Contributing to Your Anxiety and Panic?
Most people are not really conscious about the way they are breathing, but generally there are two types of breathing patterns:
- Thoracic (chest) breathing
- Diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing
When people are anxious they tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from the chest. This type of breathing is called thoracic or chest breathing. When you’re feeling anxious, you may not even be aware that you’re breathing this way.
Chest breathing causes an upset in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension and other physical sensations. Your blood is not being properly oxygenated and this may signal a stress response that contributes to anxiety and panic attacks.
In contrast, during abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, you take even, deep breaths. This is the way newborn babies naturally breathe. You are also probably using this pattern of breathing when you are in a relaxed stage of sleep.
How Can I Tell the Difference Between Chest and Abdominal Breathing?
The easiest way to determine your breathing pattern is to put one hand on your upper abdomen near the waist and the other on the middle of your chest. As you breathe, notice which hand raises the most. If you are breathing properly, your abdomen should expand and contract with each breath. It is especially important to be aware of these differences during stressful and anxious times when you are more likely to breathe from your chest.
Simple Abdominal Breathing Exercise for Relaxation
The next time you’re feeling anxious try this simple relaxation technique:
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft “whooshing” sound as you exhale.
- Repeat this breathing exercise for several minutes.
You can perform this exercise as often as needed. It can be done standing up, sitting down or lying down.
If you find this exercise difficult or believe it is making you anxious or panicky, stop for now. Sometimes people with panic disorder initially feel increased anxiety or panic while doing this exercise. This may be due to anxiety caused by focusing on your breathing, or you may be unable to do the exercise correctly without some practice. If that happens to you, stop for now. Try it again in a day or so and build up time gradually.
Source: Davis, M., Echelman, E. and McKay, M. "The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th Edition" 2000 Raincoast Books.
Davis, M., Echelman, E. and McKay, M. "The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th Edition" 2000 Raincoast Books.