WE are now entering the second half of 2022 – how those months have flown! And so much has happened, locally, and around the world. Perhaps it's time to pause and take a deep breath.
But how often have we heard or even said that to ourselves or others? Usually in response to some stress or stressor. There is a very good reason for saying it. When we inhale deeply, we fill the lungs. The lungs flatten the diaphragm, the wall of muscle that separates the belly from the chest (it is shaped like an umbrella).
This triggers activation of the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the cranial system, connecting the brain to the gut. In turn this results in the production of acetylcholine, which is a relaxant. Hence we start to feel calm.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a useful tool to have in our mental fitness kitbag. It is an easy and effective way to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest system). When we are anxious our breathing often changes and becomes shallower and faster. Sometimes we may even hold our breath (and be quite unaware that we are doing it).
Hyperventilation, the rapid, shallow breathing which we associate with panic attacks, can make us feel dizzy and lightheaded, as we are actually inhaling too much oxygen which displaces carbon dioxide and alters the optimal ratio of these blood gases. Hyperventilation or overbreathing affects about half of the people who experience panic attacks.
However, we can also over-breathe in a more subtle and sometimes chronic way. The normal rate of breathing at rest per minute is between 10 and 14 beats. Say for example you are increasing your inhale/exhales by just one per minute, after one hour you will have increased your breathing rate by 60 breaths (in and out).
Hyperventilation is part of the fight or flight system (dating back to when humans feared attacks by predators like wolves or bears) and so is designed to protect us, therefore it does not harm us, but it can feel very unpleasant especially when we do not need to actually fight or flee! Interestingly, when we yawn or sigh, this is the body’s way of addressing the imbalance between carbon dioxide and oxygen.
If you can slow your breathing down this will have a calming effect on heart rate.
In our clinical practice, we both use a variety of breathing techniques. The simplest is 4-4. Breathe in for a count of four seconds and out for a count of four.
Normal breathing volume, not big gulps of air is what we need, and try to direct the inbreath into the belly. The belly should rise or expand slightly on the inbreath (similar to filling a balloon). As you exhale, the belly should contract or flatten.
You can check you are breathing with your belly and not your chest by placing one hand on each. The hand on the belly should move, and the one on the chest should stay pretty still. If you find this hard at first (and often you will) try lying down as you practise. If you like you can also use a word like ‘calm’ as you inhale and ‘relax’ as you exhale.
As you get used to practising in this way you can increase the exhale (as this is very effective at stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system aka relaxation response). So this breath might have a count of 4-6 or 4-2-6 where you also suspend the breath for two seconds between the inhale and the exhale.
Another variation is left nostril breathing, which many people find calming. Research suggests that left nostril breathing decreases sympathetic activity (stress response) and increases relaxation while right nostril breathing is linked to increased activation, arousal and energy. To practise left nostril breathing, close off the right nostril with your thumb and focus on slow, deep breaths in and out through the left nostril. Work up to three minutes at a time.
As you deepen your breaths each inhale/exhale takes longer and so your breathing per minute starts to slow. If you ever observe a baby lying on her back breathing you will notice that she is naturally belly breathing. We are all born with this ability but as we grow and get more stressed we get more practiced at breathing fast and shallow and the diaphragm gets lazy. So we find that what we actually have to do is re-train the diaphragm and our breathing.
If you are anxious or you find that Covid-19 has introduced you to anxiety for the first time, try checking in on your breathing regularly during the day. When you put the kettle on and are waiting for it to boil, try the above breathing exercises. When you settle down in the bed tonight, try focusing on your breathing.
This is often the time when the mind wants to take over and thoughts start to intrude. Even just getting the mind to focus on the breath can have quite a meditative and calming effect. If you are prone to panic, it is really important that you re-train your breathing by working on these exercises when you are calm.
You will then feel more in control if an attack begins and your brain will get the message that you are safe and that no more adrenaline is needed. There is no wolf or bear to fight against or flee from.

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland www.psychologicalsociety.ie (Find a Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.


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