Breathing techniques for anxiety, stress and burnout - breathing tips and practices - Part 1


by Dr. Rosalba Courtney ND, DO, PhD

Stress and breathing are related (insert this hyperlink https://www.rosalbacourtney.com/stress-related-breathing-disorders/). Stressed people can tend to breathe in ways that perpetuates the stress response. Working with the breath using mind/body breath practices can break some powerful vicious cycles connected to the psychology and physiology of anxiety and stress.

This is probably not new information. Most people have at some time tried to regulate their breathing to calm down and to manage anxiety, anger or other stress related symptoms. Many others use mindful attention of breathing as the core of their meditation practice, using it an anchor for focused attention and as a way to generate presence and pleasant body sensations. There are also abundant books, magazine articles, videos and classes on how to breathe to relax and manage stress related emotions and symptoms. These contain a wealth of information and have helped many people but the reality is that different sources can give conflicting advice and for some people this results in demotivating confusion.

The right breathing techniques, practiced diligently and consistently can be a hugely useful tool for self-care, mind-body training and self-regulation, with significant impacts on the brain and nervous system. The wrong breathing technique can be ineffective and even stressful and unpleasant.

Here are some guidelines and breathing techniques with tips to help your breathing practices become more effective.

Breathe in through your nose

Breathing in through your nose is healthier (insert hyperlink- https://www.rosalbacourtney.com/mouth-breathing/) than doing so through your mouth. Nasal breathing is relaxing and it has a stronger influence on the brain than mouth breathing. The rhythms of breathing can change the rhythms of electrical activity in the brain (insert hyperlink- https://www.rosalbacourtney.com/breathing-and-the-brain-rhythm-oscillation-and-circulation-recent-breakthroughs-in-cognitive-neuroscience/) . but the brain entraining effects of breathing do not occur if you breathe in through your mouth. Nasal breathing improves memory and activates and organizes brain regions affected by stress. Techniques like alternate nostril breathing can be particularly relaxing.

Try the following easy relaxed style of alternate nostril breathing called alternating nose stands;

Alternating Nose Stands

Sit comfortably and a little straight with head in line with your spine and chin not protruding, slightly opening your chest. Relax your shoulders.

Block the opening of the right nostril with your right thumb and push slightly upward.

Stay this way for 3-5 breath cycles. Focusing your attention on your body, the feeling of relaxation in your shoulders and the sensation in your nostrils.

Change sides, block the opening of the left nostril with your left thumb and push slightly upward.

Stay this way for 3-5 breath cycles. Focusing your attention on your body, the feeling of relaxation in your shoulders and the sensation in your nostrils.

Repeat this cycle of alternatively breathing through each nostril up to 10 times.

Breath with your diaphragm (not just into your belly)

The dome shaped diaphragm is one of the most important muscles in our body (insert hyperlink- https://www.rosalbacourtney.com/the-diaphragm-whole-body-effects-tip-to-toes-and-mouth-and-nose/), it separates our lungs from our abdominal cavity. Many people think that breathing in while protruding the belly equates with diaphragm breathing but this is not always the case, sometimes keeping a little tension in the abdominal wall, so that the breathing is felt at the back and sides of the lower ribs helps support the diaphragm so that it works better.

A well-functioning diaphragm is essential if you want to use breathing to calm down. A functional diaphragm is able to relax and contract appropriately, co-ordinate its contraction with relaxation of the abdominal wall while also maintaining the ability to raise and widen the lower rib cage

The following 2 stage exercises by progressing from lying to sitting (with alternating soft and firm abdomen) can help to train diaphragm-abdomen-ribcage co-ordination that’s appropriate (and functional) for relaxed and active breathing.

Functional Diaphragm Retraining

Stage 1- Lying on the floor or bed facing up. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on the belly.

Slow down your breathing and slightly deepen it.

Firstly just check in, noticing the movement in both hands.

Then shift your attention to your lower hand, gently encourage this hand to move up, move first and move more than the hand on your chest. Stay here for at 5-15 cycles of inhalation and exhalation.

Stage 2- Sitting - Belly Soft and Belly Firm. Sit in a neutral position. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.

Slow down your breathing and slightly deepen it.

Firstly just check in, noticing the movement in both hands.

With your belly soft, encourage the belly to moves in on exhalation and out on inhalation.

With your belly firm, encourage the rib cage to widen at the sides and back of your body.

Do this for 5-15 cycles of inhalation and exhalation for each position.

Repeat Stage 1 and Stage 2-3 times.

Stay tuned for Part 2 which will look at the following questions and breathing techniques to address them.

• Why deep breathing can be a problem for some,

• what to do when breathing is unpleasant

• the perils of over controlling breathing

If your anxiety persists or gets worse, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms and possible treatments.

If you would like to learn more about working for breathing for managing anxiety and increasing stress resilience and would like to learn more techniques and practice them in a small group setting consider attending Dr. Rosalba Courtney’s Breath, Mind Body program.

The next program starts in February 2020

You can see details and book online here. (insert hyperlink- https://www.rosalbacourtney.com/breath-mind-and-body/)