Breathe OUT to Relax and Reduce Anxiety
Most people know you can relax by breathing differently – or at least they know that is supposed to work. Many have not found breathing very helpful, however, because when trying to alter their breathing to relax, most people will concentrate on taking a deep breath IN.
Breathing in deeply is very helpful because it increases the availability of oxygen in your body. However, deep breaths often do not feel good to those with anxiety because they have been breathing IN but not breathing OUT.
Taking a deep breath without breathing out as long or longer will not ultimately help you relax. Breathing in more than you breathe out much is called hyperventilation and can result in increased anxiety. In fact, hyperventilating can induce anxiety even when a person had not been feeling anxious at all.
The relaxing, anxiety-relieving part of the breath is breathing OUT. Before taking your deep breath in, try breathing out first. Breathe out with a gentle sigh: Aaahhh…
Now take a deep breath in – your body will fill with air and your muscles will tense slightly to contain the increased air. Next, breathe out slowly, letting all the breath out of your body. You will notice that your muscles relax as they let go of the air and no longer try to hold it in. When you breathe out as long or longer than you breathe in, your muscles have a chance to relax,
There are several exercises that help develop the habit of breathing out. The simplest is called the Four Square Breath:
1. Breathe in for a count of four
2. Hold your breath for a count of four
3. Breathe out for a count of four, and
4. Hold out for a count of four
Notice that during this exercise, three quarters of the breathing cycle is focused on holding and breathing out, allowing the body to truly relax.
As you become more proficient at breathing out, you can vary and expand the four count breath. Try breathing in for a count of six, hold for a count of eight and breathe out for a count of eight. (You may not have breath left to hold your breath out with these longer counts.)
Other possibilities for relieving anxiety are re-breathing – breathing into hands cupped over your mouth. You can also try breathing out through pursed lips, as if you were breathing out through a straw – or you can actually breath out through a straw!
One of the most relaxing ways to breathe is to let your breath breathe you. When you have gotten very relaxed in your breathing, try letting your breath all the way out and then pause, without taking another breath. If you wait, your body will take another breath for you, without your conscious control. Although it can be difficult to get used to waiting for the breath rather than controlling it, it is ultimately relieving to know your body will take care of you if you let go of control.
All of these breathing exercises take practice and are not likely to work during a panic attack or when you are already anxious if you have not already practiced them. Take some time to practice when you are feeling less anxious. Then when you really need them, the exercises will be available to you to use successfully. Practicing breathing mindfully on a regular basis, even for just a short time, will also help you feel less anxious overall and less prone to panic attacks.
For more detailed instructions for breathing techniques try this psychologist’s website: http://www.anxietycoach.com/breathingexercise.html
Submitted by Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
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