How you breathe can fundamentally affect your mental state and the way you feel. James Nestor in his book Breath: The New Science of a lost Art, argues that many of us have got into the habit of bad breathing. Imagine the office worker opening up her emails in the morning and finding 150 emails waiting to be answered. Immediately, she reverts to upper chest, shallow breathing. She sighs a lot, her breathing becomes irregular and even after the initial stress has passed, this breathing pattern can become habitual and put her into a long-term stress response. This dysfunctional breathing pattern then impacts behaviours like sleep, giving her a racing mind, inducing panic attacks, causing stiff neck and shoulders(because she is using her upper chest and neck muscles to breath more than her diaphragm) and making it difficult for her to fully relax. She has breathed her way into a “fight or flight” response.
We often try to tame anxiety by changing our thought patterns or engaging in a talking therapy. Instead of trying to think yourself out of your anxious thoughts there is something much more concrete that you can do and that is to breathe. The rate and depth at which we breathe can hugely impact not only our physical but also our mental state. If we are shallow breathing primarily from the upper chest at a fast rate, we are up- regulating the nervous system which makes us tense and anxious. On the other hand, slow and deep diaphragmatic breathing down- regulates the nervous system and can have an immediate calming effect.
The Vagus nerve is the principal super highway of the nervous system that links the brain with the body regulating the two elements of the autonomic nervous system, our sympathetic nervous system(the fight or flight system) and the parasympathetic nervous system(the rest and digest system). Increasing our vagal tone has a very calming effect and by breathing in a particular manner you can tap into this. By breathing low, slow and light you can have an immediate effect on your autonomic nervous system which taps into the mind making you feel calmer. These breathing techniques bypass the complexities of the mind and go straight to the body. Instead of trying to think yourself out of feeling anxious, you can do something more immediate, that is to breathe slow and deep. Of course breathing is a key technique used in many meditation and Buddhist mindfulness practices and this may be why they work.
There is now good research evidence to show that slowing down and calming your breathing can have an effect on levels of anxiety and offer immediate relief. You can hack into your nervous system anywhere, sitting in your car, watching TV, in the shower. A great resource to have at your disposal and it’s entirely free!