Do you notice anxiety is on the rise, affecting more and more people? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million adults in the United States alone. While there are various factors that contribute to anxiety, one often overlooked – and misunderstood – aspect is our breathing. Have you ever wondered why your breath seems to quicken when you're anxious? Or how deep breathing exercises can help calm down? In this article, we'll explore some little-known scientific links between breathing and anxiety, look at the mechanisms that connect them, review experiments involving biofeedback and breath modulation, and provide you with actionable tips to manage anxiety through controlled breathing techniques.
It's no secret that anxiety can manifest itself physically. Among the most common symptoms of anxiety is an alteration in breathing patterns. When anxiety strikes, many people experience shortness of breath or a feeling of air hunger, making it seem impossible to take a deep breath. But why does this happen? The answer lies in our body's natural response to stress, often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, leading to a surge in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This physiological reaction prepares us to confront danger or flee from it. Part of this preparation involves an increase in heart rate and shallower, more rapid breathing. This shallow breathing is designed to oxygenate our muscles quickly, preparing us for action.
While the stress response is crucial for survival in specific situations, it often goes into overdrive for many dealing with stress and anxiety. Consider the lion analogy: when faced with a non-life-threatening threat, such as a mouse, a person may react as if seeing or being chased by a lion. The mouse may seem significant, but it's not a survival threat – it’s not going to kill you. If an individual repeatedly responds to small life stressors as if they're life-threatening stressors, the body is unnecessarily on high alert. Unfortunately, this heightened stress response is common, and the impact of ongoing stress or anxiety on our bodies is problematic. Continuous shallow breathing can lead to both physical and mental health issues, worsening anxiety symptoms and creating a harmful cycle.
To understand how our mental states and breath are intricately connected, we need to look at the science behind it. The primary mechanism linking anxiety and breathing is the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS is responsible for regulating involuntary bodily functions, including our breathing or respiratory rate. It has two (2) main branches:
Activated during the "fight or flight" response, the SNS increases heart rate and quickens breathing, which can make us feel like we can't take a deep breath when anxious. The system is composed of nerves in the brain stem and neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine. The sympathetic nervous system is the system that is activated when we perceive a lion – or other survival-related threat – is threatening a person’s life.
Known as the "rest and digest" system, the PNS slows down the heart rate and promotes deep, relaxed breathing. The system is composed of nerves in the brain and neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine. The parasympathetic nervous system is the system that is activated when the body and mind is – or feels or knows it can be – at rest.
The balance between these two branches is crucial for maintaining emotional and physical well-being. Chronic anxiety often leads to an overactive SNS, causing an imbalance that results in rapid, shallow breathing and heightened stress levels even after the stressor has passed. While activation of the SNS is essential during certain “fight or flight” stressors, maintaining harmony with – and more often than not favoring – the PNS is vital for overall health and a balanced, resilient nervous system.
The good news is that you can regain control over your breathing and manage anxiety by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) through specific breathing exercises. Here are some effective techniques:
Scientific studies have shown that biofeedback and breath modulation practices can be highly effective in down-regulating stress responses. Biofeedback is a valuable technique that allows you to gain insight into and control over their physiological responses, including heart rate and breath patterns. Through the use of sensors and monitoring devices, biofeedback provides real-time data on these bodily functions, making them tangible and observable. This information empowers you to consciously modulate your stress response, leading to reduced stress and anxiety levels. Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of biofeedback in anxiety management, with participants learning to regulate their breathing and heart rate for improved mental well-being. By incorporating biofeedback into your routine, you can develop valuable self-regulation skills, enhancing their ability to cope with anxiety and stress effectively. It's a powerful tool in the arsenal against anxiety, providing tangible feedback and control over the mind-body connection.
In a study published in the journal, "Psychological Reports," participants who underwent biofeedback training demonstrated significant reductions in anxiety levels and improved respiratory function. They learned to control their breathing patterns consciously, which positively affected their mental state.
At times, you may find it challenging to engage in deep breathing exercises during stressful moments. That's where recreational oxygen, like Oxygen Plus (O+), can be a valuable tool. O+ offers portable recreational oxygen canisters that can serve as a safe, all-natural routine for controlled breathing – with the side benefit of helping you feel more refreshed and relaxed.
When you’re experiencing feelings of stress or anxiety, an O+ oxygen canister can remind you to slow your SNS down with a ritual of breathing slowly and intentionally. Moreover, you’ll get a boost of oxygen to your body and brain – helping you think, feel and perform your best. Myriad studies show breathing supplemental oxygen helps improve focus, reduce stress, and promote a sense of calm. O+ oxygen can be used with your breathing exercises as a tool to enhance their effectiveness.
Remember that managing stress and anxiety is a multifaceted journey, and incorporating breathing exercises and stress-relief techniques into your daily routine could make a big difference in your overall well-being. Don't let anxiety or stress control your life—take a deep breath, incorporate some breathing techniques that work for you, and start your journey to a calmer, more balanced state of mind today.