Can breath cause anxiety symptoms and can breath help manage anxiety?

In yogic philosophy, there are specific models called the Koshas, which are the different layers of the self and how all parts of us are interconnected and whole.

When we examine the Prana-Maya Kosha, the breath layer, it demonstrates how the breath impacts not only our physical body but also our mind. In the yoga’s model of the physiology of the nervous system, it is said that the nervous system primarily originates in the thoracic spine at the same location that the respiratory diaphragm hooks into the thoracic vertebrae (Stone, 109). Every breath impacts not only our physical body in terms of sensation, expansion and contraction, but it also impacts our fight or flight response. In terms of the power of breath for stress or anxiety regulation, this can show the impact it can have. Let's look at it further. Michael Stone suggests that we stretch the breath through pranayama (breath work) and the longer we stretch it and give our attention to it; the mind will dissolve perceptions that arise and pass from moment to moment. We learn the breath’s structuring and patterns as well as its impermanence. In a recent podcast I listened to with Seane Corn, she spoke of how the breathing was a big part of her OCD journey and that the first, second, third breath did nothing, but it was continuing that made it useful.

The physiological aspects of breathing are interesting to examine. When you experience anxiety many times the breath causes the symptoms we experience. When people experience anxiety sometimes their breathing patterns change, which can cause an abnormal level of carbon dioxide in the blood, this can trigger symptoms of lightheadedness, heart palpitations, sweating and numbness, which confuses the physical body to feel like it may be suffocating. The change in breath patterns causes the body to naturally go on high alert, which puts us into survival mode or the SNS response from our nervous system. This demonstrates how interconnected our breath can be with our nervous system and physical body. To take it one step further, one can have a negative thought that could be triggered by fear and this thought could cause the holding of breath or making quick, short, shallow breaths which change our breathing pattern and create a stress response in the body. Just by a thought, now that is powerful!

For most people with anxiety, simple natural breath can be entirely foreign. Natural breathing engages the diaphragm and is a central process of respiration. To try this sit comfortably and breathe in and out through the nose, and as you inhale breathe into your belly, feel it expand. Practicing this awareness a few times a day can help regulate our breathing patterns. The actions of diaphragm breathing reduce the activation of the sympathetic nervous system according to studies. It does take a few minutes (this is key and the uncomfortable part many of us run from) for our parasympathetic nervous system to catch up, but if you can catch anxiety symptoms in the beginning state, it may prevent sending your body into fight, flight or freeze.

Practice: set a reminder on your phone at the same time every day, this practice only takes 2 minutes. Equal length diaphragm breathing for ten rounds, inhaling for four counts and exhaling for four counts even once a day can help to bring our bodies back into a state of balance.

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