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Slow Down, Take a Breath. Dealing with Panic and Anxiety.

Do you remember holding your breath as a child? Or seeing a child doing so? Their faces can be comical, especially when they accompany the breath holding with crossing their eyes, widening the eyelids, and puffing of the cheeks. Breathing is one of our most basic skills. It is the first thing we do when we are born. You would think that we should know how to breathe, but many of us breathe shallow and rapid, especially during states of emergency, panic or anxiety. 

When panic or anxiety occurs, our “fight or flight” system kicks in instantaneously. We experience symptoms of increased heart rate, confusion, dizziness, tingling in the hands/feet, or shortness of breath. These symptoms are often accompanied with rapid, shallow breathing into our upper lungs only.  This breathing pattern can lead to hyperventilation and low oxygen levels, which can again stimulate the “fight or flight” system in a nasty endless circle. 

Luckily, there is an easy solution. We can reverse all these symptoms by altering our breathing patterns to a slower pattern, stimulating our “relaxation” system. When we breathe calmly into our nose and fill our entire ribcage, we begin to slow oxygen consumption, reduce our heart rate, decrease our blood pressure and muscle tension. We can also begin to give ourselves an improving sense of ease or calmness throughout our bodies and minds. This effect is nearly immediate and effective. 

According to an article in Psychology Today, the only thing we need to do is to breathe out slowly. If we focus on the exhale, our inhale will get longer naturally in response. So, focus on your exhale, making it gentle and slow. It should feel almost as if you are blowing up a balloon with the least amount of effort it would take. Keep blowing until you have emptied your lungs fully. The article recommends that we also conduct a “body scan” while slowly exhaling, looking for areas of muscle tension. As we continue to blow out, release these tensions with the outgoing air and allow calmness to flow back in with the inhale. 

Many of us have been told, “Take a deep breath”. Unfortunately, this can stimulate a deep breathing anxiety response. Slow, elongated breathing is much more effective and helps the body to naturally calm, lowering the heart rate and reducing the body’s “fight or flight” symptoms.  As a physical therapist, I am amazed at how many people do not breathe in this way. I frequently find that people choose the shallow upper lung breathing automatically without realizing it. I have also found that many people hold their breath periodically and habitually throughout the day. This can lead to the problems noted here today. If you would like to learn more about healthy breathing techniques, please consult your favorite physical therapist at Specialized Physical Therapy. 

Relaxation breathing is easy to do. We have programs on our watches. There are several good, free apps to guide our breathing and monitor our heart rate. If you would like more in-depth education, breathing techniques are taught in yoga classes and meditation techniques. Do yourself a big favor and take the time to breathe slowly and enjoy a 60 second break from all the stress and anxiety in our busy lives.