You know that dense, dark, tight feeling in the pit of your stomach or in the centre of your chest? The one that stops you in your tracks, making it difficult to breathe or move your legs. The one accompanied by a great sense of doom, panic, or danger?
Or maybe you experience anxiety with a racing heart, sweating, nausea and dizziness? Whichever way its symptoms manifest in your body, I think we can all agree that anxiety and stress just plain suck! But don’t fret. Because I’m going to tell you how to use breathwork to help anxiety.
Anxiety is real
I’ve suffered off and on with anxiety for as long as I can remember. Standing up in front of the class for the spelling bee. Participating in class lectures at university. Job interviews or attending a networking event. These all came with a heavy, dark knot in the centre of my chest.
Once I had my son, the anxiety of parenting would wake me up in the middle of the night. Anxiety’s grip tight around my heart making it hard to breathe, my mind racing through thousands of scenarios on how I was going to mess up.
I tried a million different hacks to squash this anxiety and get back to sleep, but nothing really worked that well.
When 2020 hit and the world began to resemble a post apocalyptic dystopian novel, my anxiety, stress, sadness and loneliness became almost unbearable. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t cure my overwhelming feelings of dread by laughing with a friend or even a few glasses of wine.
I was 47 years old, suffering with symptoms of depression for the first time in my life. I was gaining weight and feeling absolutely lousy about myself. There were days when I couldn’t even get out of bed. This pandemic was absolutely crushing me.
Anxiety is a symptom of Perimenopause
What I didn’t know at the time is that anxiety and panic attacks are both common symptoms of perimenopause. Let’s face it, the pandemic sucked and affected millions of people’s mental health. But my stress, anxiety and depression were compounded by the fact that I was going through perimenopause.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the hormonal changes associated with the menopause transition affect the chemicals in our brain, and in turn our mood. Women who are prone to anxiety in the past or who had postpartum depression are sometimes more likely to have a panic disorder during menopause.*
Lucky for me, one of the few activities that I could manage was taking long walks with my dog while listening to podcasts on womens’ health. It was during one of these walks that I learned about breathwork. Breathing can help to reduce stress and anxiety? What the heck. I need help and it’s worth a try.
Breathwork to Help Anxiety
I got home, did a little research and learned about box breathing. It’s a simple technique where you of breath in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, breath out for four and hold your breath again for four. That’s easy. I can do that.
I tried doing my box breathing several times a day – in the morning, afternoon and before bed. -After about a week, I found that it was helping. I started adding it to my walks when I felt dread and anxiety starting to slip into my chest. I used it during my meditation practice to help me focus and stop my wandering thoughts. Before long I was hooked. I had pulled myself through my depression and was feeling human again. But I still felt a lot of day-to-day anxiety.
My intuition told me that I needed to double down on breathwork. I need to know more about these magical breathing techniques. This would help lead me through the anxiety. Intuition is rarely wrong.
I did a little more digging and quickly learned that although it’s still considered a little woo-woo, there’s actually a lot of science behind breathwork. But before we get into that, let’s unpack the science of stress and how it affects our bodies.
How does stress affect our bodies
According to Harvard Health:~
- Our stress response begins in the amygdala; the part of the brain responsible for our emotions and emotional behaviour. It is well recognized as the part of the brain that controls our ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction to perceived stress or danger.
- When the amygdala perceives danger, it sends out a distress call to our hypothalamus, the command centre of our brain that talks directly to our autonomic nervous system.
- This is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (the gas pedal that triggers our fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (that acts like a brake and calms us down once the danger has passed).
- When in a stressful situation the sympathetic nervous system is activated and sends a signal to our adrenal glands, which in turn release adrenaline and cortisol that work together to:
- Increase our heart rate to push blood to our muscles, heart and other vital organs,
- Make us breathe faster and open our airways so we can take in as much oxygen as possible which allows our senses to become more alert.
- Release more glucose into our bloodstream so we have more energy in our bodies to take flight or fight.
Our natural safety response
This safety response is extremely handy if we’re about to get hit by a car or we find ourselves face-to-face with a bear. Thankfully, most of us will never find ourselves in those situations.
The reality is that our amygdala can’t tell the difference between real and perceived stress. So even though it’s not likely that you’ll need to fight off a grizzly bear, your brain can’t tell the difference. So when you get stressed about a work presentation. About introducing your new love to your family. Or about trying to manage the three-ringed circus you call life – your body responds the exact same way.
And after a while, according to the Mayo Clinic, ‘the long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes and puts you at increased risk of anxiety and even depression.’+
Why breathwork is important
Fortunately, scientists agree there are simple and effective ways to control this stress response. Ways to help reduce cortisol levels and alleviate anxiety. Simple things like physical activity, diet, connecting with others, meditation and breathwork therapy.
So what is breathwork
Breathwork therapy is a form of active meditation that uses breathing exercises to improve our mental and physical well being. There are lots of techniques but basically they all come down to breathing with intention and awareness.
Through deep breathing exercises like conscious energy breathing or alternate nostril breathing, we can calm our sympathetic nervous symptom or focus our minds. Others help us to increase our energy levels and create feelings of openness and gratitude.
Types of breathwork
Breathwork therapy is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years. There are many different breathing practices that you can try; some of the most popular include:
This controlled breathing technique focuses on the timing, length and frequency of your breath to help connect your mind with your body.
Involves rapid, deep breath, often through the mouth, and is accompanied by intense music that is said to produce a dreamlike, altered state of consciousness.
A practice of circular breathing: quick shallow breaths without pausing between inhales and exhales. This breathing exercise helps to release trauma and feelings of our past that we’ve locked up in our bodies.
The key to all of these practices is deep breath. Actually filling your belly with air and not just your chest – like a when a baby is asleep, their whole stomach moves.
A great way to learn how to do this is to lay on your back with a hand on your belly and one on your heart. Take a slow deep breath through your nose or mouth. Let it first fill your stomach and then your lungs. The hand on your stomach should now be higher than the one on your heart. Then slowly breath out, relaxing your body and releasing tension as you do. Repeat this circular breathing three to four more times. It’s as simple as that.
Is breathwork right for me?
Breathwork is a great tool for everyone. Everyone. It’s really amazing if you:
- Experience daily anxiety and find your heart and mind racing
- Have trouble relaxing
- Feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders
- Feel stuck in a rut and can’t seem to get motivated to do anything
- Want to feel more energized and alive
Can breathwork be dangerous?
Breathwork is a perfectly safe and relaxing activity, but if you’re new to it, some of fast-paced exercises could lead you to hyperventilate. You might also feel dizziness, lightheadedness or tingling in your hands and feet.
Breathwork is also known to release past traumas and emotions and this release can be alarming to some. If you have any concerns, it’s a good idea to have a session or two with a certified breathwork therapist.
How do I start a breathwork practice?
You won’t be surprised to learn that there are tons of breathwork apps available on your phone. You can also find certified breathwork coaches online that can lead you through breathwork therapy classes (most offer group or individual, in person and online).
I work with Jen Mansell, an incredible, Toronto based breathwork facilitator who has changed my life. I have done both group and individual sessions with her. I am always blown away by how grounded, calm, peaceful and energized I feel after a breathwork session with her.
But the best part of breathwork is that you don’t need to pay for a class or an app to enjoy the benefits. Breathwork is absolutely free. There are an incredible number of breathwork techniques available with a quick online search or on social media. And it’s something you can do anytime, anywhere.
When to do breathwork
You can do breathwork anytime you want to change your energy. You can use it to calm yourself in a stressful situation, to help decompress and fall asleep, and even to psych yourself up when your energy is low.
I do breathwork while I’m laying in bed. Working at my desk. Before responding to my irrational 16 year old’s rant – unfortunately, he’s also dealing with difficult, erratic surges of hormones. on walks. Even when I’m trying to power through an unbearably painful lip injection. And it helps. It really, really helps.
So next time you feel frazzled or stressed out, unable to cope with your boss’ request or your three year old’s demand, when your house looks like a bomb went off and your mother-in-law called to say she was popping by in a half hour, when your stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and you’re late for your appointment, when it all just seems like way too much….
Stop, take a pause, and just breathe. Nice, slow, deep breaths.
I guarantee you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.
*The Cleveland Clinic – Is menopause causing your mood swings, depression or anxiety?
~Health Harvard – Understanding the stress response.
+The Mayo Clinic – Chronic stress puts your health at risk.