You may have heard the suggestion to take deep breaths to calm down your anxiety.
Deep breath will help you to relax your body. But focusing on breathing doesn’t always help you to calm down.
There is another problem. Trying to calm down is not always the solution for your anxiety. Even if it may seen as such.
Three reasons why focusing on breathing to ease anxiety doesn’t work for you
1. Deep breathing can cause hyperventilation.
When we feel anxious or under stress, it’s easier to breathe too much and end up hyperventilating — even if we’re trying to do the opposite.
2. Taking in deep breath contributes to turning on the fight/flight/freeze response
When we’re anxious, our bodies give us the message we need more air, take in air now.
And this usually prepares us to do one of the three typical reaction to feeling fear: to fight, flee, or freeze.
3. Relaxing may feel dangerous – it may trigger the memories of being unsafe
We all know that when we get upset, our muscles tighten and contract. That cause the energy-emotions of upset to be trapped inside tighten muscles.
Israel Regardie talk abut that in his book The lazy man guide to relaxation
Murphy and Leeds in 1975 showed that muscular
tension, chronically inhibits the flood of painful memories
which return if the individual relaxes. In other words
when a person has a painful experience the energy of that
experience is trapped within muscular tension. Before
that relaxation has taken place the memories are not
accessible to consciousness. But after relaxation a psycho-
logical re-organization occurs releasing the old blocked memories.
When you are dealing with the anxiety or developmental trauma, relaxing could cause old trapped memories and emotions to be released.
That could be overwhelming and painful, also dangerous, if you have no tools to deal with released energy and emotions.
Uncontrollable burst of anger or overflowing feeling of sadness and despair are typical examples of that.
Why do we find ourselves wanting to take in a deep breath or suppress it?
Our breathing should rise as we become more active, such as during exercise, climbing a flight of stairs, or sprinting for the bus.
Our breathing slows down when we are relaxed, such as when we are reading a book, watching TV, or sleeping.
Why do we find ourselves wanting to either take in a deep breath, hold, or suppress our breathing in moments of stress, panic or anxiety?
It’s usually because we believe that attempting to control our breathing would help us deal with any and all unpleasant body feelings, such as a racing heart, throat constriction, emotional distress (sorrow, grief, anxiety, etc…), or even stress from a minor occurrence like a slip or tumble.
We can also feel panicked and anxious merely remembering that tiny event.
When you reach that threshold, your entire body will reset. Just like a the thermostat, it will automatically turn off,relieving the stress naturally.As a result, taking a deep breath when we can’t breathe or holding our breath when it feels like it wants to increase prevents our neurological system from reorganizing naturally and organically.
As a consequence, the tension does not dissipate; instead, it is shuffled back into our cells, and the last thing we want is for the stress to remain inside our cells.
Why relaxing may be dangerous while you are dealing with complex PTSD?
- when you take a deep breath you can expand the range and/or intensity of what you are feeling—which may be exactly what you don’t want to happen!
- when you take a deep breath your body start to relax and relaxing may actually make you feel unsafe.
- It may trigger the childhood memories, when it was not safe to relax, your body was on alert, constantly scanning the surrounding for possible danger
Alternative to focusing on breathing
- Pleasant object in the room
Find one pleasant object around you and observe that object, rest your eyes on the object that is pleasant for your eyes
- The sound in the room
Listen to the sound that surrounds you (or to silence)
- Your sense of touch
Touch the chair that you are sitting in or put your thumb and index finger together and notice the texture or temperature of your skin.
The next time you feel the urge to control your breath or feel a bit stressed out, rather than taking in a breath, or trying to ignore the stress try this:
1) Bring your attention to the external environment around you: orient and scan – simply look around.
2) Look at simple stuff – a picture frame, window, clouds in the sky. Neutral stuff.
3) Be aware of the movement of your head and eyes looking at those objects. Actually feel the whole head and neck move. Definitely don’t stretch, just try some slow, controlled and aware movement
4) Become aware of your body sensations. Try and notice them rather than trying to breath them away. Is there tension in the chest? Are your legs jittery? Bring attention to these areas and continue to look around.
5) Repeat this process until you sense your system start to cool down a bit.
How to use breath to calm down without being triggered
If you still want to use breathing exercise try this:
- Take a normal breath into and through your heart.
- whisper that breath out through your mouth in a gentle exhale; and then let your body breath in as much air as it needs.
- Repeat few times.