When we are anxious it affects our breathing. It becomes shallower, faster. We hold our chest still. Then the ribs can’t move with the breath. Often we’ll hold the low chest muscles, stopping the movements of the diaphragm. Again, stopping the lungs from expanding. Very useful if we want to pretend we’re dead whilst a big cat decides whether he wants to eat us or not! But not so useful for dealing with modern life, whether stress or anxiety.
Your mood can affect how you breathe. How you breathe can affect and influence your mood. It’s a two way street.
Our breath is part of the autonomic nervous system. So it happens automatically, whether we think about it or not, but we can also take over conscious control.
When we slow down the breath we switch on our parasympathetic system. (This the system that allows us to rest, relax, and digest). As we slow the breath the carbon dioxide, necessary for oxygenating the cells, can do its job more easily. When we take big fast breaths, we get less oxygen to the brain and body. Even if it logically feels like it should be the opposite. Breathing fast doesn’t help us self-calm, rather psyche up.
If we’re feeling anxious we might not be able to slow the in-breath, but we can slow the out-breath.
Try it out. Check in with your level of calm right now. Count your in-breath and out-breath. Just to have a guide and a barometer. No judging, the numbers aren’t important in themselves. They’re just a reference. Notice how much of your torso moves as you breathe in and out. Can you sense movement forwards, of your chest and belly? Or backwards, of the back, ribs and spine. Or outwards, towards your arm pits? You might also feel movements upwards and downwards: towards your head, and your pelvic floor.
If being still doesn’t feel so good for you, as if too many emotions can be overwhelming, try out this breathing practice whilst walking instead. Try different speeds of walking – how slow is still comfortable?
Breathe in through your nose, (jf that’s comfortable) and then add a number to the exhale. Repeat. Don’t force, or over-breathe. If you feel yourself straining, stop, and return to counting the breath. When you are ready to have a longer exhale, slow down the out breath a little more: add another number to your exhale. If you run out of air, pause instead for that extra millisecond. Only do it for as long as feels comfortable. Then stop and breathe normally.
Try the cycle 2-3 times, and re-count, see if there’s a difference. When we stay in a comfortable zone to learn, the comfort zone expands by itself- it’s not necessary to always push. And whilst pushing out of a comfort zone is a way to growth, it’s not the only way.
When thinking about anxiety, we want to build safety. We all need somewhere safe in ourselves to come back to. Being able to organise your breath can be a first step.
Paying attention to your physical movements dials down the brain’s default mode network. It’s this network that produces mental loops. Left unchecked, these can spiral, our thoughts triggering an amygdala hijack. That’s the part of the brain responsible for your fight/flight/freeze safety response. As well as the emotions. When the amygdala is overriding the system, your thinking/rational brain is off. It’s part of the nervous system that reacts before thinking. It’s your inbuilt safety system, the oldest part of the brain, designed to keep you alive. Those times when you withdraw your hand from something hot, so it doesn’t get burnt, before you realise it’s hot? That’s the same part of the nervous system.It’s all about reacting, not responding.
To respond, we need time to think. Milliseconds, which isn’t much time, but it’s enough for your cognitive brain to process.
Sensing yourself, in motion, turns on your brain’s direct experiencing network. And down-regulates the amygdala. These two networks can’t be on at the same time. Self soothing is also part of the turning on of the para-sympathetic system. Resetting the nervous system back to neutral.
Come back to your breathing. Count the breath once again. And then pay attention to the sensation, the physical movements of your breathing.
Hum quietly on your out-breath. How much of you vibrates with the sound? Try different pitches: high, medium, low. What feels most resonant?
Humming smoothes the walls of the inside of the nose, making it possible to have more air volume. (To read more about that, read James Nestor’s fascinating book “Breath”).
When we are anxious, fearful, stressed or angry, (any large emotion will do it), we can jump into survival mode. Here it’s easy to forget that we have resources. When you feel safer, or more comfortable, environment, it’s easier to remember that you are your greatest resource.
This feeling of breath rippling through our whole self, can be a way to naturally self-calm. Just look at a very young child- the whole of them moves when they breathe. They don’t hold themselves back. They aren’t stopping movement to dampen down their feelings. They haven’t learnt that yet. And we can unlearn that, to create calm and space with our breath.
When we don’t force ourselves, the learning is more pleasurable. It’s a basic animalistic sense- towards pleasure, away from pain. We can try to fight it, or we can include pleasure in our learning process. If we can find a little sensation that feels pleasant in breathing, we can find it elsewhere too. Our brain starts to look for it.
And if we can enjoy what we’re doing, we’re more likely to bring it into our daily lives. It’s as simple and as important as that.
It seems simple, but learning to breathe more fully is a first step. If we aren’t breathing well, we aren’t moving the diaphragm enough to digest well. And that’s physical as well as mental digestion.
Life is a balance of internal thoughts and physical spaces, and external, those outside us. We can learn feel ourselves better, sense our three dimensionality. We can learn to sense more fully where our skin ends, and the outside world begins. We all need clear boundaries – what is us, how much physical or emotional space do we need? Where does the external world begin? We need to understand that any action combines with emotion and thinking, as well as sensing. The physical is the easiest to play with, to explore, to sense.
As you breathe, can you feel those internal movements of the breath moving the ribs, the sternum, the collar bones? Pushing outwards in all directions? Put your hand on your chest, and one on your belly, to make it easier to feel. Move them around to feel the different areas of your torso. Lean back against the chair back to sense the fluctuating curvature of your back. Can you feel the movement within the borders of your skin?
When we realise our arena of action, we can work out what is our responsibility? Where can we let go? As it’s not our area, but someone else’s? When we can feel and sense these physical and mental boundaries, it becomes easier to relate to others. We aren’t just internal thoughts and sensations. Nor are we only about the external: relationships with others, the things we do, the things around us in the world. We need a balance between the two.
A flexible one, able to adjust as life changes. It’s this that allows us greater resilience to what changes in life. After all, so much is outside of our control. The only thing we can control is our response to it. That is our arena for change.
As you breathe out, can you feel the withdrawal of those spaces, the ribs drawing in? The lessening of pressure on the intestines as the diaphragm rises? When we breathe in big breaths, those movements can be easier to feel. Try something different. Slow your breath down, make the breath smaller, so that you’re tasting the tiniest movements of breath? Purposefully breathe so the ribs don’t move, aren’t touched by the smallness of the breath. How can you play with the size of the breath to move yourself more or less? So that you introduce some choice into how you’re breathing?
Where can you send the breath around your torso to shape your ribs in different ways? As if your breath had fingers, gently moulding the skeleton from the inside. Katharina Schroth in Germany, developed a whole way of correcting her scoliosis, by using breathing to move her ribs and spine. That may not be necessary for you, but how can you play with moving yourself with your breath? Where could you mould yourself to the floor, or the back of the chair with your breathing?Where can you create more movement in your frame to allow a fuller range of motion? Not just to create a flexible body, but to inhabit the world more fully, to open up yourself to the full range of emotions.
As Moshe Feldenkrais wrote “I’m not looking for flexible bodies, but flexible minds.”