I had to remind myself to breathe today. I saw a new patient that became very angry and started shouting at their partner in another language in my hallway. It was a tense moment for everyone in my office, and I was afraid I would have to call 911. Luckily, the situation de-escalated, but my breathing did not return to normal for quite some time. I was agitated and anxious, and breathing fast and high into my chest. Instead of calming down, I wondered why I felt so nervous even an hour later. My own physiology was at fault. My rapid breath was increasing the CO2 in my body, and not allowing the exchange of oxygen I needed. When I finally figured this out, I was able to bring it back into conscious control.
Breathing is not a totally unconscious physical function of our body. We can control our breath, where it goes, how fast or slow, at least to a certain extent. And the way we breathe significantly affects our physical and emotional responses to stress. Deep, conscious breathing into the abdomen triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and can override the stress response. But we must focus to create this type of breathing if we are already anxious. Stress hormones like epinephrine increase our respiratory rate, and we tend to breathe quickly to suck in as much oxygen as possible. If we don't take the time to exhale fully, we can end up with too much toxic carbon dioxide in the blood, and become light-headed and dizzy... these can be some of the first symptoms of a panic attack!
So how do we take control of our breath? The first thing to do is recognize a stressed breathing pattern. Sitting quietly and simply observing the breath is a good place to start. I finally recognized my shallow breaths when I felt my heart pounding and kept yawning. Hmm, my body trying to tell me something! The next step is to slow the rate of breathing. Don't hold the breath, simply sip the air in more slowly through the nose. Inhale all the way into the belly, the chest and finally up to the collar bones, then exhale. Make the exhale longer than the inhale. A good place to start is inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 8. Do this for several breaths or a few minutes, ideally, and you will feel the calmness start to return.
Dysfunctional breathing patterns, like any good dysfunction, develop from years of bad habits, and can take a lot of observation and redirection to correct. However, the payoff is short-circuiting anxiety before it takes over. Fear and stress are a part of most of our lives at some point or another. The breath is a powerful tool we always have with us to regain our center.