The breath is intimately tied to our emotions—it tends to be shallow and rapid when we’re excited or anxious, long and deep when we’re calm. That’s why at some point you’ve probably been told to “take a deep breath” when you’ve felt stressed and anxious, like before public speaking.
Breathing is closely connected with our nervous system. When we breathe in a particular way, we can engage the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system (the parasympathetic part) to soothe our minds and bodies.
I recently spoke with psychiatrist Dr. Suvrat Bhargave on the Think Act Be podcast about the connection between anxiety and the breath. He emphasized the value in using the breath to slow down our anxiety response, as he discusses in his recent book, A Moment of Insight.
“We have two main responses to anxiety and fear,” he said. “Our thoughts speed up, and our bodies speed up.” And while we may know on a rational level that our fears are probably unfounded, “it sure doesn’t feel like it,” said Dr. Bhargave. “It sure feels like something bad is about to happen right now. So you have to bring yourself back to a state of rest before you can then move forward and deal with being anxious.”
Maybe you’ve tried breath focus to calm yourself before, with little success. Take heart—in my clinical practice, I’ve found that there are more and less effective ways of managing anxiety with the breath, as has Dr. Bhargave. He noted that when he suggests deep breathing, some patients initially say, “Oh, I tried that, and it didn’t work.”
“It’s easy to believe when we’re highly anxious that ‘nothing has worked, and nothing is going to work,’” noted Dr. Bhargave. “That’s what anxiety wants you to believe—that you’re never going to be rid of it.”
However, he is undeterred. “Breathing is so essential to bringing yourself back to a state of homeostasis, back to a balance,” he said. “And my response is to say respectfully, ‘I promise you that you didn’t do it right—let’s do it again!’”
If you’ve had limited success with breath practice in the past, consider trying again with these principles in mind to make breathing as calming as possible:
Focus on the Breath, Not the Anxiety
Breathing for relaxation sometimes can backfire, especially when we’re focused on “if it’s working.” If we’re constantly monitoring our anxiety, our minds can override the parasympathetic response. Bring your attention to the breath as fully as possible. Feel the sensations of breathing, like the belly as it rises and falls, and notice the sound of the breath. Consider counting your breaths to give the mind less opportunity to focus on the anxiety.
Train Yourself to Associate the Breath With Relaxation
You can also repeat two words—one on the inhale and one on the exhale—as part of your breathing practice. This approach not only occupies your anxious mind but also conditions your mind and body to link those words to the parasympathetic response.
“Use the same two words every time,” suggested Dr. Bhargave, “because you’re conditioning your emotional being to respond to certain cues. And if you use the same words every time, then it will fall into place a little better each time.”
It doesn’t matter what the words are. Some examples are In … Out, or Just … Breathe—as long as they work for you. “You clearly don’t want to do the opposite,” laughed Dr. Bhargave, “like saying Oh … No.” Some people like the words to be humorous, like a child he worked with who chose Monkeys … Bananas. “It’s meant to calm you,” he said, “and a little bit of chuckling took the edge off his anxiety.”
You might prefer words that have more significance. “They might mean something really powerful to you,” said Dr. Bhargave, as his do for him. “I chose my two words because, to me, they symbolize a lot of things. I don’t have to have a full conversation with myself about what it is that it symbolizes, because I know what those two words mean to me. And so it strikes a chord within the deepest part of me.”