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  • Writer's pictureKim May

Take a Breath

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

Though most of the time we take breathing for granted, 2020 has forced us to consider the circumstances in which the ability to breathe is taken from us. COVID-19. Violence and murder of black Americans. Tear gas at protests. Smoke filled air in parts of California that have seen over 4 million acres burned.

The result of so much pain and uncertainty are that many of us cannot breathe, even if we have not been directly affected by the events above. We hold our breath while we watch the news. We feel overwhelmed by loss and we can’t catch our breath. We learn of a new death, or another natural disaster approaches and the air leaves our body, like a psychic gut punch.

2020 has run off the rails, all of us with bated breath wondering when it will get better or how much worse it can get. While there are things we can do to take care of each other and our communities, much of what is occurring is beyond our control, and more of us than ever are experiencing higher levels of fear, grief and anxiety with fewer supports and less means by which to manage it.

We must take care of ourselves as best we can, and that begins with a single breath and gratitude for the ability to do so.

Our stress response

Our stress response is commonly referred to as the fight or flight response. When we perceive danger, our body prepares us to take needed action. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Our pupils dilate and digestion stops or slows down.

After our acute stress response has kicked in, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour for our body to return to baseline. If we are experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety frequently, then our body has less time spent in the rest and digest state or more time spent in the fight or flight state—which in turn makes us more prone to continued stress, as well as other physical problems such as high blood pressure, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues.

Our stress response is necessary for survival and certainly most of us have experienced a terrifying situation—someone breaking into your home, a fire getting out of control, an aggressive dog chasing you, etc. However, our bodies use this same response for all kinds of situations that we might find stressful, like flying. Or public speaking. Or money problems. Or simply living in a stressful time and place in a constant state of worry and anxiety.

The way you breathe matters

While we cannot control many unwelcome events in our lives, we can develop more effective ways to deal with stress and anxiety. Being physiologically relaxed is key to managing stress. While the third hour of Netflix can seem relaxing, it is possible to still be in a state of anxiety and tension. Focused breath work on the other hand, can relax our bodies in a more significant way than just zoning out. Although there many kinds of breathing exercises, most begin with deep breathing.

Deep breathing is more than just inhaling and exhaling—it matters where the breath is coming from. Many of us habitually breathe from our chest rather than our abdomen, which results in more shallow breaths. Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm's range of motion. The lowest part of the lungs does not get a full share of oxygenated air which can make you feel short of breath and anxious.

Not sure how you are breathing? Let’s check. When you take a deep breath, does your chest rise or does your lower belly? If you are doing proper deep breathing (abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing), your belly should rise, along with your chest.

You’re going to have to stop sucking in your stomach

For many of us, deep breathing feels weird and difficult for a simple reason—we are holding in our stomachs all the time. Constantly holding in our stomach muscles disallows us to engage in abdominal breathing, so chest breathing becomes our norm. Constant chest breathing contributes to tension and anxiety. So, at least for now, let your stomach do its thing and work on breathing in such a way that your belly is rising.

Breath work 101

New things feel weird and they take practice. Give yourself some time and space to get the hang of it. Many people prefer to close their eyes. However, if you have a trauma history, or feel the need to stay grounded in the here and now, go ahead and keep your eyes open.

1. Find a quiet comfortable place to sit or lie down

2. Take a normal breath or two and notice what that feels like

3. Now, try a deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your stomach expand fully.

4. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, or your nose (whichever you prefer)

Practice this once or twice a day until deep breathing begins to feel normal to you.

Combat, or box breathing

Once you have the hang of deep breathing, you might want to try specific breathing exercises. Combat breathing is frequently taught to people in high stress positions, like the Navy Seals and has been proven to be effective. Whether you are in a life or death situation or you are about to ask your boss for a raise, combat breathing can lessen your anxiety and improve your focus.

1. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.

2. Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Avoid tightly closing your mouth, just avoid inhaling or exhaling for the count of 4.

3. Slowly exhale for 4 seconds.

4. Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four Avoid tightly closing your mouth, just avoid inhaling or exhaling for the count of 4.

Repeat all 4 steps a couple of times. If 4 seconds is too long, try 2-3 seconds. If 4 is easy, you can try to work your way up to longer periods.

4-7-8 breathing technique

Some people tend to inhale too much, too quickly. The exhalation is linked to our parasympathetic nervous system—sort of like the brakes to our stress response. Taking too many breaths (inhalation) can lead to hyperventilation, which decreases the amount of oxygen-rich blood flowing to your brain. The 4-7-8 technique shortens your inhalation but lengthens your exhalation. It also begins by having you exhale, rather than inhale.

1. Exhale deeply, pushing the air out of your lungs

2. Breathe in deeply through your nose for 4 seconds

3. Hold in your breath for 7 seconds

4. Exhale forcefully through the mouth for 8 seconds

Repeat the cycle a couple of times. If you find the 4-7-8 cycle too long, you can shorten each cycle to 2-3-4.

Tips for success

Whatever breathing method you prefer, be sure to practice it. It is best to try new strategies when your stress is lower—do not wait for an acute pang of anxiety to try something new. Practicing when your stress is low will make it easier to learn and practicing it frequently can help it feel more natural and automatic during those times your stress skyrockets. If these techniques are not right for you, do not stress it—there are tons of them out there to try, just google breathing techniques.

Support if you need it

Out of control stress and anxiety can be difficult to manage. In an attempt to make ourselves feel better, we often adopt less healthy means of coping such as increased drinking or drug use. If you need support, Substance Use Therapy is here for you. Whatever you are facing, you do not have to face it alone.


About the Author:

Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.

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