Using your breath to alleviate depression, anxiety and panic
In this months newsletter we are focusing on taking time to breathe. Good breathing techniques have countless benefits, some of which I will explore below. However, the main focus on this article is how we can use our breath to help alleviate depression, anxiety and panic. I am sure that everyone reading this article will have some idea of what panic, stress, or anxiety feels like. Many will have also had periods in their lives of feeling depressed. Globally there has been a huge rise in awareness of depression. Of course there are many strategies of dealing with depression, including medical treatment, and often more than one approach is needed. In this article we will first explore how the breath can affect emotions and the role of the nervous system. We will then explore two simple breathing techniques that can help us regulate anxiety and other emotional states.
How the breath affects our emotional state
Breathing (and breath patterns) are linked with our emotional state. For example, when we are scared or anxious our breath becomes shallow (high up the lungs and upper chest) and rapid. Conversely just as our emotions affect our breath, our breath can also affect our emotions. So, by becoming aware of the breath, you can change it, which in turn can alter your emotional state. For example, deep breathing, and balancing the inhale and exhale, can calm one down.
So lets unpack how this works a bit more. Second by second, every day our bodies are working extremely hard without us having do, think, or consciously control anything. For example, the vital functions of the heart, circulatory system, glands, and other organs work without us having to do anything. This is known as the autonomic nervous system, which has two main parts; the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic branch, linked to the fight or flight response, is associated with the bodies’ response to stimulus, and helps gear the body up for action. So, for example, when we are stressed or challenged, the body responds by sending blood and increasing tension in the large skeletal muscles. This gets the body ready to fight or flee, hence the name “fight or flight response”. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system decreases heart rate, blood pressure, preparing the body for rest and digestion.
The different branches of the nervous system are impacted by our daily activities for example eating, sleeping, exercising and thoughts. When we are stressed, we are likely to be in panic mode and therefore the body is in fight or flight mode. Whereas, if we are having calm thoughts, we are more likely to be in a rest or digest mode. In addition, how we breathe, in particular the respiratory rhythm, directly and indirectly affects our nervous system. As well as what we think, and how we breathe, other factors such as our weight and posture can have an impact on our breath and anxiety.
The movement of the diaphragm modulates the cognitive and motor functions of the brain in particular, through limbic oscillations (the part of the brain associated with memory, emotions and stimulation). When we breathe through the nose this happens with a greater force, than when breathing through the mouth.
There are subtle shifts with every cycle of the breath. The inhalation is more linked with the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, which is associated with fight and flight, and the exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic branch, that is associated with rest and digest. Below we will explore a technique that can help harness this knowledge to move us into a more relaxed state.
How can we improve our breathing?
Before we consider how to improve our breathing, we need to first of all get to know our natural breath. In my other article this month I provide details of a simple restorative yoga practice (link to restorative yoga article) you can do to get to know your breath better. So first you could try this exercise, being aware of when you are breathing in and out, and the pauses between the breaths.
Next you might want to think about how your weight and posture affects your breath. Overweight people often find it difficult to take deep breaths and therefore compensate by taking shallower shorter breaths. Being overweight can also lead to sleep apnoea, due to it being more difficult for the air to flow into the lungs and the extra weight of the tummy restricting the diaphragm. If you would like some weightloss tips why not check out our detox and weightless section.
Poor posture, which is often exacerbated by long periods of sitting, impacts the ability to breathe. When the head position is forward and the chest constricted this often restricts the space for the breath. You can check out our article, how yoga can bring wellbeing which contains some tips on how to improve your posture.
What breathing techniques can I use to help manage stress, anxiety and depression?
There are many breathing techniques that can help with managing stress, anxiety and depression. In order to be able to practice these techniques it is first advisable to learn how to regulate the normal flow of the breath.
Ideally with all of these breathing techniques it is advisable, if possible, to breathe in and out of the nose. Also, some breathing techniques can lower blood pressure, so if you have low blood pressure please take care when practicing.
One of the first breathing techniques we can learn is to focus on an even breath. This means making the inhale the same length as the exhale.
- To do this technique find somewhere comfortable to sit or lie down. Whatever your position ensure that your spine is straight and the movement of your belly is unrestricted (i.e. loosen any tight clothing or belts).
- Next begin to focus on the inhale and exhale. You can say to yourself as you breathe in and out “I am breathing in”, “I am breathing out”. Spend a few minutes noticing the inhale and exhale.
- • Try to notice how the inhale and exhale feel different. Which muscles are you using? Can you feel how the inhale fills the chest with air? Can you notice a sense of release or letting go on the exhale.
- Next begin to count the breaths like this. “Inhale, two, three, four. Exhale, two, three four”. Some people prefer to work with a count of three, four or five. Start with whatever count feels easiest and natural.
- Continue counting the breath. You might find as you continue to watch the breath the count gets slower.
- If you get distracted and loose the count, do not worry just begin counting the breath again when you remember.
- Continue for five or so minutes.
- When you are ready, take a few normal breaths and take some time to notice how you feel after this exercise. Notice your mood, energy levels, stress levels etc.
Even breathing can help to bring balance to your system. If you are feeling stressed or panicked, this is a great breathing technique to restore calm and peace.
Two to one breathing
Making the exhalation twice the length of the inhalation creates relaxation by extending the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our relaxation response. Once you feel comfortable with the even breath you can focus on learning two to one breathing.
- Set up as above making sure you are comfortable. The body is even and belly unrestricted.
- Settle the breath and then start focusing on developing even breathing as above. Establish how long each breath cycle is, for example if you breathe in and out for 3 that is a breath cycle of 6 counts.
- Next start to shorten the inhale and extend the exhale. Try to keep the same overall breath cycle. So in the example above you could inhale for a count of 2 and exhale for 4. If your breath cycle was 8 you could inhale for 3 and exhale for 5, with the possibly of extending the exhale to 6 if you feel comfortable.
- Practice this breathing technique for 5 or so minutes, you can gradually extend the time each time you practice.
- When you are finished, take some time to notice how you feel.
Please note, if you experience depression, your exhale is probably longer than your inhale (depressed emotions tends to mean a short inhale and a long, drawn-out exhale, plus a deep exhaustion). So, to bring balance back to your system, you are better to practice even breathing. Alternatively, to bring more energy to your body and emotions, change the focus of the two to one breathing, so the inhale is twice as long as the exhale, for a short period of time, then return to balanced breathing.
If you have enjoyed these techniques you might like to practice some more yogic breathing techniques which can also have a positive impact on anxiety and depression. Here is a link to some more yoga breathing techniques and information about their benefits. You might also like to try restorative yoga.
If you are interested in improving all aspects of your breathing in a holistic way, including through weightloss, breathwork and yoga why not consider booking onto one of our health and wellbeing retreats in Spain! If you are particularly interested in making long lasting changes in your life, then try our life makeover retreats.
About the author
- Tania is one of our programme team, who loves teaching yoga, mindfulness and other programme activities.