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Can breathing reduce Anxiety?

man suffering from anxiety

Can breathing reduce Anxiety?

Dr. Anthony Warren
| 2020-06-01 | 2 min read

The short answer is yes, and here’s why.

We are all equipped with a complex central nervous system that works continuously in the background to keep our bodies functioning correctly under a wide range of conditions. For example, when we exercise, our heart pumps faster to get more oxygen to our muscles and our lungs work harder to make sure sufficient oxygen gets into our blood stream. We may begin to perspire which helps to keep our temperature in a safe range. When we sleep or relax, our heart and breathing rates slow down.

This nervous system has two natural states which we have inherited from our hunter/gatherer ancestors. When we feel threatened, the sympathetic or so-called fight-flight state is triggered. Our heart and breathing rates increase, and become irregular. Adrenaline levels rise, oxygen is directed to our leg and arm muscles, and we are on high alert. When we feel safe and relaxed, the parasympathetic state, referred to as the rest-digest state comes into play. Heart and breathing rates decrease and stabilize, muscles relax and we feel calm. These two states are normally in balance; we are neither fully relaxed nor overly tense and we can go about our daily lives comfortably.

Now if for some reason, perhaps purely in our imagination, we become over anxious. The fight-flight state is triggered, our heart races, breathing becomes unstable, we may perspire, we can’t focus. We may even go into a full-blown panic attack and hyper-ventilate. This is when we can use breathing control to call upon our parasympathetic state to put on the brakes.

This is best done by focusing on breathing and consciously slowing it down with regular breaths. Holding the breath for a couple of seconds after each exhale can help too. We normally breath in and out 12-18 times a minute. If we can get down to about 6 breaths a minute we enter what is called the coherent state. This is when heart rate actually goes strongly up and down with each breath, referred to as heart-rate variability or HRV. To make the best use of breathing to help with anxiety, you should practice slow regular breathing daily for a few minutes when you are not feeling particularly anxious. Then, as soon as you detect your anxiety level start to affect your heart and breathing, you will have the tools to calm yourself down before things get out of control.

These techniques can be very powerful. In fact, the US Department of Veterans Affairs teaches these methods to soldiers that are suffering from battle-field induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a highly anxious state.