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  • Writer's pictureMarla Vender, LCSW

Take a Breath from Stress, Anxiety, and Panic

When we are under stress, or have anxiety and panic, one of the first thing that happens physiologically is a change in our breathing. This is because stress, anxiety, and panic cause us to breathe more shallowly, and quickly, preventing sufficient oxygen to get into the lungs, and causing carbon dioxide to decrease. When we’re under stress, or experiencing some anxiety, it’s likely our body will just take over and we’ll find ourselves sighing and yawning more. When anxiety ramps up, or panic happens, breathing gets faster and shallower, leading to feelings of numbness and tingling, and the sensation that we’re going to pass out. Some people with panic attacks describe it as feeling like they’re suffocating, or having a heart attack. The technical term for this type of breathing is hyperventilation.

Have you ever seen an old movie, and there is someone hyperventilating, and they’re given a paper bag to breathe into? Well, don’t try it at home, because it’s not safe. There are much better ways to oxygenate your blood to ease the frightening symptoms of anxiety and panic. Using breathing techniques that are free, easy, and always available to you can keep anxiety from escalating, and prevent or shorten a panic attack. While breathing is something that comes naturally to us, so natural that we have to make a great effort to stop breathing, most of us don’t breathe in an optimal way. Before you try breathing exercises, learn the difference between breathing from your chest and breathing from you belly. Chest breathing is shallow. Shallow breath = less oxygen. Belly breathing allows for full and deep breaths. Full breath = more oxygen = better for brain and body. Cleveland Clinic offers this simple to follow instruction for diaphragmatic breathing:

Once you’ve got the hang of diaphragmatic breathing, try resonant breathing to quickly calm yourself. You can sit up or lie down to do this. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 6, and exhale through your nose for a count of 6. That’s it. You can do it with your eyes open or closed. Alone at home, in a class or conference room filled with people, on a crowded train, or in the grocery store. Nobody will know you’re doing it, so it’s stealthy and effective! If you’re having a difficult time with a count of six, try a count of three or four and build up to it. Some research suggests resonant breathing can help improve symptoms of depression, and PTSD as well. There’s also an app for it:

Anxiety is diagnosed in the United States in 18.1% of the adult population every year, and the Child Mind Institute says that 31.9% of adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18. Living in an urban environment can be stressful, but it is also a risk factor for mood disorders as well. Resonant breathing has genuine benefits with no negative side effects. If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or know someone who is, or you just want to get through a staff meeting with your blood pressure in check, try resonant breathing, or another technique to achieve a more relaxed state.


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