Unbreathable Moments: Breathwork for Anxiety

I have yet to meet a soul that has not suffered with anxiety in some way, in some capacity in their life. This guidance, although I hope still helpful, is not exclusively for those with a medical diagnosis of anxiety. While as real as that can be, mental health is very much on a spectrum, and we can exist at different ends of it throughout our lives.

(While I am not a doctor and don’t claim to offer this as medical advice, my intention is to suggest body based insight and practices that may help)

TRIGGER WARNING: I am going to be discussing, in detail, the physiological and lived experience of anxiety and panic attacks. Please read at your own pace, ensuring you are in a safe place and feel that you can pause, stop and breathe at any time. 

Unaffected Affected

I used to think I was a lucky one, unaffected by anxiety. Then I gave up caffeinated coffee and realised I had been living in a low-level state of anxiety all of the time. The caffeine added fuel to my already aggravated system and upon giving it up, I eventually lost the jitteriness and tightness in my jaw. 

It might help to think of anxiety as being on a spectrum, with low-level agitation being on one end and a panic attack being on the other. Mental health is not black and white and does not fit into the perfectly prescribed boxes that the medical system gives it. Our personal mental health fluctuates and through self awareness we can begin to notice when we may not be feeling our best, to avoid getting to a place where we feel our worst. It may also help to know that low-level anxiety can be addictive. The adrenaline, the excitement, the rush, it can become known as the ‘norm’ to the body. So that when you don’t feel this way anymore and you bring about more calm, feelings of fatigue or lethargy can be much more confronting because it is not what we are used to.

What really is anxiety?

Anxiety is an over activation of the nervous system. It is an excess of the do, go, move energy. As we climb the spectrum, we start experiencing a quicker heartbeat, shallow breathing and heat, as blood rushes to our muscles. Think of the engine of a car, it can accelerate to travel far but without brakes, it would burn out or worse, crash. Anxiety is too much acceleration. It can be described as feelings of fear, worry, and stress that so many of us give little to no notice to and put aside. Being in this state for too long, or if we feel into it severely, our body decides our energy is best conserved for ‘fight or flight’. In other words, our caveman brain prepares to tackle the tiger or run for our life, as we interpret the current day stressor to be threatening to our livelihood. Energy is then directed towards the global muscles in the legs for this physical outlet, all while higher cognitive thinking and digestion are shut down, along with interest in sex and ability to remember movement patterns. What activates this response is very much based on individual judgement, often made up from learnt past experience.

Be it from the sound of a loud siren, an initial feeling of dread injecting adrenaline into your system. 

Be it the email from your boss that reads “I need to talk to you about last week’s assignment,” causing your stomach to drop and your palms to get sweaty. 

Be it from one too many coffees, your heart pumping as if you’re mid way through a 5k. 

As you’ve read this you may be thinking, ‘yes to all of the above’, and please know – you can experience anxious thoughts and feelings without having anxiety as a condition. These are feelings we can not always eliminate but instead, eventually integrate, accepting these parts of ourselves and honouring where these fears came from.

Breathwork Practices to Try

An extended breath

To move through feelings of anxiety, stress and worry, you can begin to make your exhalation longer than the inhalation. This helps us put on the breaks. This shifts the physiology of the body to communicate safety and calm. You could count the breath like so:

Inhale for 3 (3, 2, 1)

Exhale for 6 (6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1)

As we are trying to expel as much of that anxious energy as possible, the inhale can be through the nose and the emphasis can be on the exhale, slowly out through the mouth.

When you become comfortable with this, start to include a breath hold at the end of the exhalation. Why? In short, because this improves your tolerance towards stress. Your breathing then may flow like this:

Inhale for 3 (3, 2, 1)

Exhale for 6 (6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1)

Hold for 3 – 6 counts (inhaling when feeling the urge)

End of the spectrum

At the end of the anxiety spectrum, when the system is completely overrun, this is where panic attacks can happen. While sometimes plain to see and other times completely invisible to the eye, they are experienced slightly differently from person to person. Lasting anywhere between 5-20 minutes. Symptoms can include:

  • Sweating
  • Chest pain 
  • A choking sensation 
  • Dry mouth
  • Ringing in the ears 
  • And difficulty breathing

Difficult breathing

A close friend of mine has suffered an unfair amount of panic attacks. Having been physically present on more than one occasion, I know that I wouldn’t wish a single episode on anybody. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks similar to what I’d imagine suffocation to look like. Blood struck eyes, body stiffening, knowing at this point no amount of asking her to ‘BREATHE’ was going to reassure or help. Her system, it seemed, was hijacked and taken over with something much more powerful than rational thought: feeling. When she started to move through it, she started to be able to breathe again, like someone had switched a valve and let oxygen back into the atmosphere.  

Seeing it in reality it became clear to me how panic, felt to whatever extent, is a feeling of lack of safety and as a result, a lack of coherent, efficient breath. A lack of being able to breathe, it seemed, at all. 

The anti-panic attack

To combat the overwhelming effects of a panic attack, if you feel one starting to arise, or if you are with someone that you see in need of help, follow these steps:

  • Distract
  • Breathe
  • Resource

Distract: Often the onset of a panic attack can be unwanted, irrational thoughts. If we run away with these thoughts and let them become us, we can become victim to the panic and severe distress. Awareness of the thought and knowing what to do to move away from it is the first thing. To move away from these thoughts, the individual can distract themselves with something else. Something simple can be counting. Such as counting to 4. The idea is, that focusing on the numbers, moves the mind away from the distressing thought. Thinking ‘one, two, three, four’. You may even tap the end of your fingers ‘one, two, three, four’ bringing sensation back to your body. Maybe thuding your heels against the ground ‘one, two, three, four’.

Breathe: Now the mind is distracted, we begin to pair the counting with the breath. Inhaling as you count to 4 and exhaling for the count of 4. A mantra may help such as “When I use my breath I can help to manage my feelings in a useful way.” Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. Exhale slowly, through a small gap between your lips.

Resource: Bringing a hand over your heart or onto the tops of your thighs helps to bring you back into your body. Viscerally feeling yourself, your skin, in the space that you are in. See the walls, the windows, the exit. Know that you are safe.

Theory v practice 

Knowing the breath in theory and using it in practice are two very different things. These suggestions above are practices that you can absorb, learn and hopefully integrate when needed. This is for the anxious experience and how we can breathe with it and eventually through it. 

Another approach

Anxiety, as we know, is a responce of the nervous system. It is a part of the spectrum we don’t feel safe in and it effects our ability to breathe. What if, we could enter a low-level of this nervous system response and tip toe around the edge while still feeling safe and in control? The good news is, you can and you can do so with the breath. Concious Connected Breath is the healthy activation of the nervous system. By breathing with momentum and pace we are able to develop tolerance to this activated state, so that when the feelings arise you know what to do. Concious Connected Breath puts your body into a low grade stressed state and it teaches your body how to regulate and resource so that you can apply it when needed. If you slip, you are less likely to fall because you will know how to catch yourself.

If you are London bound, you can either join me for a weekly Breathe at the Bamford Studio in South Kensington. I also see clients privately online and for more virtual explorations stay tuned for my monthly Breathe event launching January 2023.

If knowing the power of the breath could help the anxious, the scared and the fearful… If this knowledge could help you be a point of support for someone else struggling… If it could take the ‘powerlessness’ out of panic attacks and allow you to resource before they take you… how empowering could that be?

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