I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve heard someone unhappy with the idea of trying to breathe to manage anxiety or stress. It’s usually because what they’ve heard or learnt about breathing is incorrect- which is why it hasn’t helped.
Understanding the physiology of your body can help.
When your body’s stress response is on, your body needs more oxygen. This is why your breathing tends to be shallower or faster – to get more oxygen into your bloodstream. This, in conjunction with other bodily changes, helps give your body the fuel it needs to respond quickly to danger.
When there is no danger, however (as in the case of stress or anxiety), it can be helpful to down-regulate your body’s stress response. Given your breath can be shallower or faster, deep or slow breathing can be recommended (makes sense right? Fast goes to slow). But… Deep breathing can maintain an increased oxygen level in your body, which will also maintain your stress response! Imagine the frustration of being tense and worked up, trying to breathe deeply to relax, and getting nowhere. Sometimes people can feel even more stressed as a result.
When you’re trying to breathe for stress or anxiety, what is needed is an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide coming into your system. Increased carbon dioxide disrupts one of the foundations of your stress response: the higher oxygenation. How you increase carbon dioxide is through long exhalations- but not long inhales!
What you can aim to do is breathe out twice as long as what you breathe in for. You can even count it, for example, inhaling for a count of 3, and exhaling for a count of 6; or maybe you just focus on doing long breaths out. This type of breathing actually has an evidence base for reducing your body’s stress response.
Additionally, you can shift your breathing anytime, anywhere:
Whilst you settle your baby.
With your older children- they can be included too!
In the car.
Going for a walk.
Sitting at your desk.
In bed, when you can’t sleep.