The way we breathe can increase our anxiety levels considerably. Recently I have been working a lot with clients who have a high degree of anxiety. Their symptoms range from panic, over worrying, phobias, chest pains, blurred vision, impaired ability to think clearly, headaches, inability to focus, loss of memory, muscle pain, dizziness and sleep problems. Before I work therapeutically with them, I focus on their breathing.
These symptoms are also the result of hyperventilation (over breathing) and other breathing disorders. When we hyperventilate, we are breathing mainly through the chest.
How to test yourself
It is quite simple to test yourself for hyperventilation. Here is a simple questionnaire that you can use. A score of over 23 out of 64 suggests a positive diagnosis of hyperventilation syndrome.
Alternatively you can try this:
- sit in a comfortable position on the chair or on the floor
- place your right hand on the centre of your chest, the heart area, in between the nipples
- place your left hand on your belly, just below your navel
- begin to breathe in your own way, your normal breath
Do you feel the movement more beneath your left or right hand? If the right hand is moving more you are chest breathing.
Chest breathing results in a shallow breath. As the breath is shallow too much carbon dioxide is exhaled and body becomes more alkaline. This (alkylosis) triggers the neuro-hormonal, physiological responase which increases breathing rate and also the anxiety itself.
Whilst an initial activating event (a conflict with your boss, perhaps) may have caused the breathing response (and the initial anxiety) but the breathing patterns then propagates the anxiety. Thus we have entered a vicious circle of anxiety.
Change our anxiety by changing our breathing
How we breathe, and how we feel are intimately connected in a two-way loop. Which means that we can change the way we feel by changing our breathing.
However, it is also important to know that chest breathing can cause tension and pain because it uses the wrong muscles of respiration. This might include the sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius in the neck, pectoralis and latisimus dorsi in the trunk. These muscles soon get tired and weak, because they are not designed for primary breathing, and this can lead to aches and pains in the neck, shoulders and upper back.
The importance of the diaphragm
The diaphragm is the main breathing muscle and produces 80% of the inhalation. The diaphragm is attached to the ribcage and the lumbar spine. When we breathe using the diaphragm, the belly moves; it moves out on the inhale and releases back as we breathe out.
Diaphragmatic breathing has many benefits over chest breathing:
- it massages the internal organs and reduces the symptoms of IBS and other digestive problems (common with anxiety)
- it activates the vagus nerve and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and reduces the release of the stress hormone cortisol, so that we feel less anxious and more relaxed
- as the diaphragm is connected to the heart, it acts as a second heart and means that less stress is put on the heart when we use the proper breathing muscle to breathe
Learn how to practice diaphragmatic breathing with this short podcast.