By Dr Rosalba Courtney ND, DO, PHD, an Osteopath with over 40 years' experience as a practitioner, teacher, researcher and writer.
Breathing disturbances are both a result and cause of stress, anxiety and overwhelm. Ensuring that breathing is mostly nasal and that the diaphragm is working well are important first steps. Here are some other tips and practices for making sure you get the most out of breathing for stress resilience.
Deeper breathing is not always better breathing (if it makes you hyperventilate)
People who suffer from anxiety, panic disorder and burnout are much more likely to chronically over breathe or hyperventilate. Some are likely to hyperventilate when trying to use deep breathing to relax and destress because (due to a range of factors) they tend to breathe with too much effort and force.
Chronic hyperventilation has many adverse effects on health and on the function of the brain and nervous system. Low CO2 from hyperventilation is a major contributor to panic and anxiety attacks. Breathing retraining for hyperventilation tends to focus on using softer, lighter and more gentle breathing that gradually trains the body to allow normal levels of CO2 to accumulate.
The problem is that most hyperventilators don’t know that they are over-breathing, particularly as they often subjectively feel chronically short of air.
The best way to test for hyperventilation involves using a capnometer, or device for measuring the level of CO2 in exhaled air. However, short breath holding time can also indicate whether a person is likely to be a chronic hyperventilator.
Practice 1: Breath holding test for hyperventilation
What to do when focusing on your breathing feels unpleasant
The feeling that one’s breathing is unsatisfying, restricted or in any way unpleasant to focus on is a major obstacle to using breathing as an anchor for mindfulness or as a tool for stress reduction. Experiencing breathing as unpleasant is not uncommon in people with anxiety or dysfunctional breathing. In this situation indirect breathing techniques that involve shifting focus between other body sensations and the breath can be helpful.
Practice 2: Body/breath focus shift
The perils of over controlled breathing
Everyday breathing is regularly irregular just like a healthy heart. While excessive irregular and chaotic breathing is a problem in anxiety and stress so is overly rigid, excessively controlled breathing.
Excessive breathing irregularity can manifest as frequent breath holding, sighing, yawning and mid-sentence gasping. However normal breathing does contain some sighs and even some breath holding. These act as a neurological resetter, and help to equalize pressures throughout the lungs and help maintain normal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Excessively rigid and controlled breathing sometime occur in anxiety, depression and trauma. The person with excessively controlled breathing can be overly conscious of their breath yet somewhat disconnected from their body and its sensations.
Chaotic irregular breathing and overly controlled breathing are both types of dysfunctional breathing, which can result in symptoms and affect the body’s ability to heal.
This breathing technique introduces structured irregularity and helps to reconnect mind and body.
Practice 3: Breath holds with breath following
If your anxiety persists or gets worse, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms and possible treatments.
To learn more from Dr Rosalba about working with breathing for managing anxiety and increasing stress resilience, register for our new short course Helping Your Patients Reduce Stress. This course explores the impact of stress and the scientific evidence base of some of the therapies that may be able to alleviate stress, including mindfulness, breathwork, CBT, hypnotherapy, yoga, water and sound therapy.