The mind/body connection is somewhat of a trendy topic these days. The subject of meditation or awareness is no longer reserved for the few and now widely accepted by mainstream society. The health benefits are seemingly endless for those who can conquer the challenges of quieting ones mind through diligent meditation. Whether it is to remove excessive stress during the work day or improve our relaxation at home, mindfulness is a major accomplishment when done correctly.
Oddly and despite not being in the medical profession, I find it disappointing that breathing, or more specifically proper breathing, is quite often overlooked. Meditation, yoga and other mindful activities quite often utilize breathing as a major component yet todays medical practitioners don’t delve into how to actually do it. Correctly, that is.
This may seem like an incredibly stupid statement as most people simply never pay attention to breathing. It is after all, instinct. Isn’t it? With how complicated our minds and bodies are, a quick look at something we take for granted may reveal that you are in fact breathing incorrectly, or at least less effectively than your capable.
This is especially valuable for anyone who has ever suffered from persistent anxiety. Anxiety is an unforgiving mental illness that hovers in the gray area between mind and body. We know that anxiety affects the brain but does it start there? Do the medications prescribed to control the symptoms help or heal? These are important questions to ask even if the answers are somewhat obvious. We know that there is no medicinal cure for anxiety but what if there was a natural “cure” where we can change something physical that affects us mentally.
If you research holistic anxiety treatments online you will come across dozens of supposed natural solutions. Some, like stimulating the vagus nerve, appear to have some medical validity while others such as herbal supplements are pure money grabs. This is where the process of finding a natural cure, or better yet, natural cause, becomes convoluted. Separating fact from fiction is difficult in life and even more trying when paired with the pains of mental illness.
My advice is to try any holistic approach that is safe and has some degree of medical backing even if not fully mainstream. This includes meditation, yoga, stretching, fitness, and so on. However, what I am going to propose here is another approach and possibly the start of your journey to conquering anxiety.
First, lets stop and review the symptoms of most anxiety sufferers. These often come in the form of physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath and lightheadedness. These physical symptoms are often accompanied with psychologic ones such as fear, nervousness and panic.
With the symptoms listed, we need to ask what, if any, correlation exists between them. It is a little difficult to focus on the mental aspect but certainly we can look at the physical and say that they have much in common with nervous system. For example, what happens when we are confronted with a life or death situation? One can expect very similar symptoms as those suffering from anxiety including the psychological symptoms that may be a manifestation from the physical. Now that we have a connection, the next step is to ask why would someone exhibit them constantly.
In biology class we may recall hearing the phrase “fight or flight”. This is the doing of our sympathetic nervous systems in times of extreme danger. Without diving too deep into the specifics, our sympathetic nervous system makes physiological changes to our bodies to allow for more alertness and maximizing oxygen intake to position our bodies to survive. It is so effective that adrenaline and other hormones start flowing before our visual centers can fully process the data our eyes collect. This is why people claim to have reacted without thought when avoiding danger such as a moving car.
Unfortunately, as great as these natural systems are, when taken out of context they can have negative consequences. This is the same for the sympathetic nervous system. However, for many, the cause may be unlocked and relief from many, if not all of the symptoms may be closer than you ever imagined. In trying to disengage our sympathetic nervous system and launch our parasympathetic nervous system or “rest and digest” mode, we need to consider what has gone askew.
So why are some people stuck in “fight or flight mode”? This is where we turn our attention to our breathing. When our sympathetic nervous system is engaged our body requires an extra source of oxygen to deal with the energy being expended. This extra volume of air is vital when your escaping danger or even exercising hard. Your shoulders will lift and the upper chest will expand allowing the full capacity of the lungs to be used. When in danger, this is good behavior but it is short lived and we must eventually return to our parasympathetic mode. The smaller upper lung is a valuable resource when used in combination with the lower but on it’s own is undersized and inefficient in delivering oxygen to the blood.
Most people tend to associate our lungs with being located in our chests but it is more accurate to say they are in our belly. This is where the majority of our lungs reside on an inhale including the parts that are super skilled at transferring oxygen to the blood. This is why the term “belly breathing” in yoga class is used to describe an inhale that causes the belly to visibly expand. While not entirely wrong, the name can lead people to cheat by using stomach muscles in lieu of the diaphragm. Instead, diaphragmatic breathing is a more accurate term that emphasizes the primary component to the process. It is the strong diaphragm muscle that drives our breathing process, dropping lower into the belly allowing our lower lungs to fully expand into a very fulfilling breath. The opposite is for those stop using the diaphragm and rely solely on the upper chest.
Do this quick test if you are questioning how well you breathe. Sit in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Breathe in normally and see which hand moves. The hand on your chest should barely move. If it moves a lot and your belly is still, you are a chest breather and it is certainly holding you back in some form. Furthermore, if you have anxiety, your chest breathing may be the culprit.
For those who are chest breathers and have anxiety, it is quite possible that you have become stuck in the bodies “fight or flight” mode. This means that your sympathetic nervous system is constantly engaged believing your life is in danger even when its obvious that is not the case. How can this be? Let’s take a example of an anxiety suffer performing the simple act of socializing. While easy for most, the act of socializing can activate the sympathetic nervous system starting the downward spiral. First, their heart rate increases and blood pressure rises despite standing still. The brain signals for more oxygen and due to their upper chest breathing, they can only utilize a fraction of their lungs capacity and therefore feel short of breath. Craving the oxygen that your brain believes it needs, the problems compile as rapid, shallow breaths reduce the amount carbon dioxide in their blood. This leads to hyperventilation causing lightheadedness, rapid heart rate and more rapid breathing. This anxiety sufferer is enduring a panic attack.
Several problems occurred in this scenario but it all started when the sympathetic nervous system activated when it should not have. As a chest breather who is already struggling for oxygen, this individuals brain interpreted the situation as a danger, unleashing the sympathetic nervous system response and from there, spiraled out of control. Furthermore, it cannot be understated how the lack of carbon dioxide plays an enormous role. If this person had been using their full lung capacity, they would have slow, deep breaths that allow CO2 to accumulate and allow for an efficient blood-oxygen exchange.
As you can see, by just reading this general overview, a learned behavior (chest breathing) can cause a physiological change (constant fight or flight) that may lead to anxiety and panic attacks (rapid heart rate, lightheadedness). It’s understandable to have a curiosity as to how and when this bad habit formed but not necessarily relevant as correcting it is more important than investigating its’ origins. If you did dig further, you will might find that you are also a mouth breather. Humans (along with nearly every other mammal) have evolved to breath through our nose which moisturizes and tempers incoming air for our lungs and filters out foreign materials including bacteria and viruses. Did we really think it was coincidence that evolution placed so many blood vessels in the internal passages of our nasal cavity? For anyone who has been hit in the nose, the profuse bleeding will attest to the importance of the nose. Unfortunately, not only do mouth breathers lose these benefits, they often become chest breathers as the nose is no longer their to direct air to the lower lungs. So again, you might want to ask why did this learned behavior begin? It could be anything from constant congestion to avoiding constant foul smells. Regardless of the cause, you may want to correct the problem
So what are the next steps? As noted earlier, I have no formal medical training and by sharing this information, I hope to enlighten and provide hope for those who suffer from anxiety or simply want to breathe better. There are answers out there. Hop online and research “diaphragmatic breathing” and you will discover dozens of methods to retrain yourself. It is important to find a system you are comfortable with and take the process slow. It does take effort but at some point, your brain will take control and revert back to what it already knows how to do. After all, breathing is instinctual. Next, you may want to look increasing your tolerance for carbon dioxide. This too may seem odd, but we need CO2 as a part of healthy breathing and for those who have lived with shallow breathing, it is likely that your tolerance for CO2 has become diminished. Lastly, if you are a mouth breather, you should focus returning to using your nose to its intended biological purpose.
I welcome your comments so drop me a note with any suggestions, corrections or if you would like to discuss further. If there is interest, I am happy to add additional content. Good luck and most of all, do not lose hope!
For similar discussions, try reading Home Office-Breaking the Mindfulness Barriers, How and Why Meditation Works for Anxiety and Depression. You can also find a wealth of information on The Oxygen Advantage website.
Please note that the above commentary is not meant to act as medical advice or replace any current therapies or medications you are taking. This is solely intended to help expand the possible therapeutics anxiety sufferers have at their disposal, and in the process, win the battle.