December 15th 2021
8 techniques to strengthen your breathing and calm anxiety
April 12th 2020 / 0 comment
Try these breath techniques for health and wellbeing
"One of the best mindful exercises when experiencing anxiety is simply connecting with your breath," says Yulia Kovaleva of London meditation studio Re:mind. "The more you practice mindful activities the more you are aware of yourself and your body and the less prone you are to react to stress and develop anxieties."
While we may know that breathing gently and making the out-breath longer than the in-breath, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response) the coronavirus outbreak has brought specific breath techniques into focus. Last week JK Rowling shared a particular three-minute breathing exercise by Dr Sarfaraz Munshi, from Queen’s Hospital, Romford, which she said helped her recover from coronavirus. His video, showing how a particular hard cough and breathing through the mouth could ease breathlessness, went viral, but some health professionals have cast doubt on its effectiveness. Laura Breach, a representative from the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Respiratory Care (ACPRC) told the Daily Mail: "Doing this could exacerbate cough symptoms and induce dizziness and shortness of breath." The ACPRC stated: "Breathing through the nose instead warms and humidifies the air and is less likely to make the cough worse."
If you’re not suffering from Covid-19 but you are feeling anxious, breathing can be a very helpful tool. "When we are stressed and anxious our nervous system picks up the information that we are in danger and makes changes in the body preparing for flight or fight," says Alan Dolan, Breath Coach at Khera Griggs Cleanse Clinic at Urban Retreat. "One of the consequences of this is that our breath tends to gravitate towards the upper chest and become shallow and rapid. We can counteract these effects by learning to breathe differently e.g. abdominal breathing (sometimes called diaphragmatic or belly breathing). If practised for a few minutes helps to adjust our bodies into the more relaxed rest and digest mode (i.e. stimulate parasympathetic nervous system)."
Try these anxiety-easing breathing patterns...
1. Why breathing through the nose will change your life
One advocate of nose breathing is Patrick McKeown, breathing expert and author of The Oxygen Advantage, who helps people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, COPD as well as with panic attacks.
He has recently released a video showing why breathing through your nose, and holding your breath briefly can increase the body's uptake of nitric oxide, which is produced naturally in the sinuses and has an antiviral effect. Dr Rangan Chatterjee is a fan and has been practising some of Patrick's simple nose breathing techniques. In the video below, he describes to Dr Chatterjee how they transformed his sleep, anxiety levels and drastically reduced his need for asthma medication.
2. Breathing while you walk
It sounds second nature, but Aimee Hartley, author of Breathe Well extols the benefits of using your hourly daily exercise as a time to be mindful as well.
“This breathing exercise cultivates calm, improves focus and lowers blood pressure,” she tells us. “When walking, bring your attention to your breathing and when you begin to notice each breath, use this as a ‘metronome’ to set the pace of your stroll.
• Breathe in for 5 steps
• Breathe out for 5 steps
• Repeat for a few rounds and continue for as long as you can
If you find the 5-step count easy then you can up it to 6 or higher.
The video below demonstrates the breath pattern (just without the walking)
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3. Box Breath - the one the military uses for focus
“This is a well-known exercise used by the American Navy SEALs for dealing with stressful situations and helping them improve their ability to focus during intense situations. A regular, daily practice of this can help you start your day in a calm and centred way,” says Aimee.
“This is a great micro-breathing exercise for bringing the energy into the upper chest and realigning the posture. This can be practised sitting or standing.”
Breathe through the nose in for a slow count of 5
• Hold the air in the lungs for a count of 5
• Breathe out through the nose for a slow count of 5
• Hold the air in the lungs for a count of 5
Repeat for 2–5 minutes.
4. Alternate nostril breathing - to get you back in balance and help you meditate
This is an ancient yogic breath is known for calming the nervous system by balancing both sides of the brain - your left analytical side and your right creative side. Most of us are left or right-brain types so this helps us access the aspect of ourselves that we spend less time with.
“Although you may not realise it, we have one dominant nostril at any one time, and they alternate every 90 minutes. This of little consequence to our day to day lives – you’re still breathing – however left nostril breathing is associated with the feminine character of calm and restoration, whereas the right is masculine, dynamic, powerful,” says Chatty Dobson, yoga instructor and owner of London yoga studio Flex Chelsea. “By shifting your breath you’re able to change your mood and your body functions. Alternate nostril breathing cleanses the body, calms the mind and body, and neutralises the breath.”
“I recommend practising this for five minutes every morning and evening to rebalance the nervous system,” advises Aimee. “It builds emotional resilience, soothes the nervous system, regulates body temperature, increases lung volume and reduces blood pressure and heart rate.”
Meditation teacher Will Williams, founder of Beeja Meditation, teaches this breath (also known as nadi shodana sukha pranayam) both as a way of making meditation easier and more effective (do it for five minutes just before you begin to meditate) and as a way of calming the mind whenever you need it.
Gently block your right nostril with your right thumb as Will demonstrates. Inhale through the left nostril, block the left nostril with your ring finger ad exhale right. Inhale again through the right nostril, block, and then exhale left. Do a minimum of three minutes. Always start and end on the left.
If Will's own experience is anything to go by it could also improve your lung function. "As a result of doing this technique (followed by meditation), my lung capacity increased by 45 per cent in two months," he says.
5. 3,4,5 Breath, the instant stress reliever
This is the go-to de-stressing breath favoured by GP and author Dr Rangan Chatterjee. "Your breathing state reflects your stress levels. If you have a work deadline that’s imminent, your breathing will start to speed up. On a primitive level, we feel under attack and your body tries to get more oxygen to the muscles by increasing breathing and heart rate, as if you are running away from a lion. However, you can absolutely trick your body into feeling that that world is safe by slowing down your breathing."
Breathe in for 3
Hold for 4
Breathe out for 5
"Making your out-breath longer than your in-breath helps to switch off your stress state and activate your thrive state. Do a few rounds before you go to bed, it’s a really great way of unwinding and becoming more aware of your breath generally."
Watch this video from about 4 mins 35 seconds to see a demonstration and find out why it's good for headaches.
6. Sleep well breath
If you’re struggling to drift off at night (particularly hard if you’ve had a quiet day and you’re not feeling tired) this should help soothe you into a snoozy mindset, according to Aimee.
"Lie on your stomach if comfortable - most of the lungs are at the back of the body so lying on the front allows them to relax and soften more."
• Gently inhale through the nose
• Exhale through the mouth fully, then switch…
• Inhale through the mouth slowly and exhale through the nose
• Practice very calmly, silently. Be present. Repeat for a few minutes
7. The Rescue Breath - to make you smile
Created by Chinese Medicine practitioner and acupuncturist Katie Brindle of the Hayo'u Method, this simple technique requires you simply to breath deeply and smile into the energetic centre of the body. There's a full explanation of how it calms the stress response in the video.
To perform the Rescue Breath, breathe in and exhale hard three times to let carbon dioxide out, then throughout the day when you exhale imagine a smile in your lower stomach. Do it five times at once to get the full effect.
8. Kapal bhatti - the energising breath
While most breathing techniques are designed the calm us down, breathing can also re-energise us - ideal if you're feeling fatigued while working from home and not getting a lot of outdoor time. It's not suitable for pregnancy or if you have high or low blood pressure or are prone to anxiety. However, if you are feeling sluggish it's a great pick-me-up - best done on an empty stomach though.
"Kapal bhatti [meaning shining skull] is also known as breath of fire or detoxifying breath. It energises the solar plexus, working the abdominal muscles and thus pulling in the stomach and for expelling toxins. Once you understand how to do it, you can do it a hundred to a few hundred times in one go," says Ayurveda expert Mira Manek, author of Ayurvedic Rituals for Happiness.
It's best taught IRL by a yoga teacher who can check your technique. Here's a demo from Yoga with Adrienne.
"Try to sit with your knees bent under you," says Mira, "as this is the optimal position for digestion; otherwise sit cross-legged or on a chair. Sit up straight, close the eyes for extra concentration and take a deep inhale into the stomach (you only take this deep inhale once, at the beginning).
"Expel the air through the nostrils with extra force, giving small contractions or jerks to the stomach muscles each time you exhale, trying to empty the air in the stomach each time. Focus on these short exhales and the inhale will happen naturally – don’t try to inhale. You will feel your stomach contract each time and almost empty each time. Do it as many times as you can for a two to five minutes."