During this time when there is so much focus on our physical health, it’s important to not forget about our mental health. Holed up in our houses and uncertain of what is to come during this time, anxiety and stress can easily build until it feels unbearable. This can be especially difficult if you would normally relax through outdoor activities. However, regardless of everything, you always have one way to calm yourself: your breath.
While most people aren’t aware of how they breathe, there’s generally two types of breathing patterns: Chest (thoracic) breathing and abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing. When anxious, people tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from the chest. This type of breathing causes an unbalance in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which increases your heart rate, muscle tension, cases dizziness, and other physical sensations. With your body not being properly oxygenated, your brain signals a stress response that your body needs more oxygen, causing more rapid, shallow breaths. This causes you to feel anxiety and can even cause panic attacks as the way we breath affects our whole body.
Deep breathing or abdominal breathing, however, is one of the most effective and fastest ways to lower stress in the body. When abdominal breathing, you take long, even breaths, signaling your body to calm down and relax. Your heart rate slows, muscles loosen up, and blood pressure lowers, all things that normally happen when you’re relaxed.
If you’re unsure of your breathing pattern, the easiest way to determine is to put one hand on your upper abdomen, near your waist, and the other in the middle of your chest. Without changing your breath, notice which hand raises the most as you breathe. If you’re breathing properly, your abdomen should rise and lower with each breath, causing your hand to raise the most. If the hand on your chest is raising more, however, you’re chest breathing and may be more stressed and anxious than you consciously realize.
To help relax your body and practice abdominal breathing, here is a simple deep breathing exercise:
- Stand, sit, or lay in a comfortable position.
- Put one hand on your belly, just below the ribs, and the other on your chest.
- Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed and focus on breathing into your stomach. Your abdomen should expand and your chest should rise very little.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth. As you breath out, purse your lips slightly while keeping your jaw relaxed.
- Repeat this breathing exercise for several minutes, until you feel your body fully relax.
Practice this exercise as often as needed. If this breathing pattern doesn’t come naturally to you, first practice while laying down, as this is your natural breathing pattern while sleeping. Experiment with different lengths of inhalations and exhalations to see which works best for you.
In this time It’s natural to feel anxious and stressed, especially since we feel isolated from our friends and loved ones. When you notice yourself feeling tense though, return to your breath to relax your body and your mind. With enough practice, you can regain your quality of life and control over your anxiety all from the comfort of your home.