I hope you've been enjoying the tips and strategies on natural ways to manage anxiety this month. Even as someone who works in the health and wellness field, I've loved the opportunity to learn new ways from my incredibly talented colleagues here at Live Well to Manage the Madness that so often seems to get the better of me in daily life. We’re a pretty close family here and we regularly take advantage of each other’s talents and services to help us, walk our talk and look after ourselves, so that we can continue to give our best to you! So when you’re getting a referral to another practitioner you can be sure that we have experienced their healing skills ourselves!
If we haven’t met yet, I'm Ramone and I'm currently Live Well’s resident expert on all things Yoga! I teach yoga, meditation, pre and post natal yoga and also offer Thai Yoga Massage for all ages and during pregnancy. Today I'm here to offer some options for how breathing can change your body chemistry and therefore your relationship to feelings of anxiety.
Are you breathing or thinking about breathing?
You can try this exercise to experience how reflexive breathing works.
If you take a deep breath in…. then exhale completely and hold your breath out for as long as possible…. you’ll eventually feel a build up of energy that will force you to take your next breath in – this is our reflex to breathe – and live!
There are many ways in which we can consciously regulate our breathing patterns and in yoga we call these techniques and practices Pranayma. In Sanskrit, the ancient language of Yoga, Prana is both the word for breath and for our essential life force. As you experienced in the exercise above, these are quite closely related! If you don’t breathe you die, fairly logical whether you’re a Yogi or not!
Through generations of experimentation the Yogis developed many different Pranayama techniques, and observed their impacts on the body and mind. In modern times scientists have developed instruments that can now measure these changes on our brain function and body physiology that back up what the Yogis had come to find through their experimentation. What spiritual seekers and scientists can both now proudly claim is that the way you breathe can change your body, your mind and therefore your life!
How breathing works and why what you think matters!
Automatic breathing is governed by complex interactions of neural and chemical mechanisms in your body, without you having to think about a thing! But sometimes, what you think can change the way you breathe! When you have thoughts, you usually attach a particular feeling or emotion to each thought through habit or conditioning. Each of these thought/feelings creates a physical response in your body.
Situation: I'm not going to meet my deadline again today…
Thoughts: 1) I'm not good enough to do this job
2) I feel bad for letting my boss down
3) I'm terrified people will find out I'm a fraud and I’ll lose my job
Emotions: 1) Self doubt 2) Guilt/remorse 3) Fear
Response: Fight or Flight – Particularly when fear is an emotional response or trigger, adrenaline kicks in to set your body up to either fight the threat of not meeting the deadline, or run away and hide yourself in the nearest cave to avoid the threat and humiliation of being fired! Unfortunately when it comes to fear, as intelligent as you are your brain still thinks like the cavemen did! When adrenaline fires you up to fight or flee a perceived danger, it sets off a whole chain of responses in your body including:
- Increased breath rate (generally this means shallower and shorter breaths)
- Blood moves to our muscles and away from our digestion
- Awareness sharpens
These are all great things when we actually need to defend ourselves or make a hasty retreat but in modern day society there are a whole range of reasons fight or flight isn't the socially appropriate response to a situation, or even possible! This leaves our bodies and minds pumped up for action which, in certain situations is fantastic for getting things done (like meeting that deadline!), but over time exhausts our system of vital energy and essential elements needed for healthy function.
Often quite unconsciously, we create habits of running negative thought loops in our minds. Without realising we are telling ourselves stories over and over again, our bodies respond by getting stuck in a holding pattern of pumping out hormones creating a cascading effect that you’re showing all of the physical responses you need to help you respond to a threat - that’s not actually there - it’s just something we’re holding in our minds!
How can breath stop the anxiety train?
Well if the fight or flight response triggers short shallow breathing, maybe we could try consciously choosing to lengthen and deepen our breaths to try and trick our body out of it? We already tricked it into thinking there was a threat in the first place so it can’t be that hard right?! The beauty of conscious control of our breathing is that we have an avenue of returning the pace and depth of our breath back into to our personal power of choice. We can choose how long and how often we breathe and therefore begin to change our body chemistry out of fight or flight mode.
The first steps begin with learning to observe our anxiety signs and signals. Once you can identify some of the physical indicators of your fight or flight response, you can start using breath regulation like a circuit breaker. A tool to put in your anxiety management toolbox and use when needed!
From Fight Club to Rest Fest
The body has an inbuilt counter balance to fight or flight known as our relaxation response. Sometimes called our rest and digest system, our relaxation response is a biochemically-controlled response to the feeling of safety and security. It’s what switches on when our body needs to recover and heal; our blood pressure and pulse rate reduces, our breathing rate decreases and our brain activity changes to a frequency associated with feelings of relaxation.
One of the best Yogic breathing or Pranayama exercises for accessing this state of rest and digest is called Viloma Pranayama. In English you might have heard it called deep belly breathing, three part breath or diaphragmatic breathing. In Sanskrit Viloma means interrupted or against the natural flow. The technique involves taking partial sips of air separated by small breaks in between each one.
It’s one of my favourite breathing techniques to teach because it has such a quick positive impact on people who try it; they are instantly calmer. It’s a simple technique that can be practised by anyone, any time, any place! Viloma breath gets you into a longer, deeper and slower breathing pattern that breaks the fight or flight cycle and sends your body and mind back toward balance with rest and digest.
Here are five simple steps to Viloma breath that you can try anywhere; from your bed when your head won’t stop working and you need to get some sleep, to the car when traffic is making you impatient, to inconspicuously in your office chair when the going gets tough and you need to stay sane and fight off the internal gremlins of self doubt and negative thought patterns!
1) Find a place where you can sit or lie comfortably with a long, neutral spine. Place both hands on your low belly and close your eyes (if you can – not if you’re driving please!).
2) Relax your core and inhale into your low belly until you feel it rise and expand under your hands (like a balloon inflating). Exhale and gently squeeze your core to expel all the air from your lungs. To encourage yourself to breathe slowly and deeply, you can count equal numbers for your inhale and exhale. 4:4 is a comfortable count for most people to begin with. Try at least three of these deep belly breaths first.
3) Begin Viloma breath. On your next inhale, breathe deep into your core and feel your hands rise as your abdomen expands, stop for a moment and hold the first part of that breath in. Then continue to fill your ribcage with breath, feeling your chest expand (you may like to move your hands to the side of your chest to feel the ribs moving upward with breath), pause again. Finally fill the top of the chest with breath until you reach the base of the throat and pause for the final time (again you can move the hands to the front of the chest to feel this if it helps!).
4) Release your breath as one long slow and controlled exhale. Take a normal breath before trying again if you need to. Repeat steps 3 & 4 at least three times but up to ten, as long as you’re not getting dizzy.
5) Make sure you keep your breath relaxed and soft, you’ll lose the benefits of the practice if you try to force it. Go easy on yourself! The idea isn't to strive for perfection but to be deeply involved as an investigator of your experience; notice the speed, quality even the temperature of your breath and where and how it moves inside you as you slow down and shift your focus on the different parts of your torso.
Hopefully after a few rounds of Viloma Pranayama you’ll feel much more connected to your body, rather than stuck in the single gear of your mind-chatter! Our bodies are a deep well of wisdom just waiting for us to tap into and listen!
Once you've cultivated the practice of listening to the signals your body gives, you can learn to respond to those messages in healthy, healing ways and take back the power and wealth of wellness in your life! It’s a process and takes practice so remember to be patient and keep on trying even if it doesn't feel like it worked on the first go.
Good luck and please be in touch if you have any questions!