The essential anxiety tool: a diaphragmatic breathing exercise (belly breathing)

“I can’t keep calm, because I can’t breathe properly!”

businesswomanbreathingWhen we are anxious we are in a ‘fight or flight‘ state. This is when the body pumps itself up with adrenaline and cortisol and oxygen to prepare for a situation that it perceives as a ‘threat’, whether low moderate or high. Today’s threats are mainly psychological and social, but your body reacts in a primal way as if the threat were physical, which, while thinking it’s being helpful, is obviously quite unhelpful in many cases.

Fight or flight overloads us with oxygen; and we can manage and limit the stress hormones actions if we manage and control our oxygen intake – with BELLY BREATHING, it’s a science, a simple but powerful tool, it works.

justbreathenotetoselfWhat is happening?: fight or flight triggers your nose throat and lungs to take in extra oxygen, making oxygen available for the heart to pump to the muscles, and strengthening the lungs to help fight or flee from a perceived danger or threat – but without fighting or running you’re not burning the extra oxygen, so it causes you to have to take short quick breaths, to ‘overbreathe‘ (which can escalate to hyperventilating when in full panic attack mode). The change in breathing itself is often enough to accelerate panic – and the extra oxygen (oxygen stimulus) can make us physically shaky and mentally spacey – so build awareness of this, be aware of what is happening and why it is happening – and learn and use the following BELLY BREATHING EXERCISE – the essential tool for you to return your body to homeostasis and to calm you down.

 Try it:

Take a long slow 4 second breath in through your nose, noticing your belly contract in (and the rise of your rib cage).

Hold this breath for 4 seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth for 4 seconds, noticing your belly extend (and the lowering of your rib cage).

Wait a beat of 4 seconds – then repeat the cycle.

While learning to perfect the exercise, place your hands on your stomach (belly) while doing it – and note your stomach going in and out, in and out, with each breath. Make the exercise a habit. Practice it until it becomes routine and automatic.

Do you have a child who is anxious? Click HERE to show them the wonderful youtube video of Sesame Street’s Elmo (and Colbie and Common Caillat) learning belly breathing – 5 million views can’t be wrong. (And of course, it would do adults no harm to watch/do it).

While breathing stabilise your thinking too, develop a mantra, maybe something like:


Click here for information on booking a Dublin one to one private Li CBT session…

It’s okay, I just have extra oxygen that I’m going to stabilise.. No thank you body, I don’t need fight or flight right now, there is no tiger, I’m okay, it’s okay, and, breathe….

And/or adding a mindfulness routine can be very helpful in managing our bodies and helping them to return to homeostasis when we notice we’re shaky – the ‘just noting’ technique could be applied: “Ah, here’s fight or flights oxygen”… with no judgment, acknowledge it, and let it move away. See if any of these other effective and efficient mindfulness techniques suit you; HERE.

And of course, you can use CBT strategies to develop new healthy ways to think and explain the world to yourself, decreasing your incidences and strength and duration of fight or flight. It’s a science, it works. Try this blog as biblio-therapy to learn the self help components of modern psychotherapy, and apply apply apply…

And apply again. Until new healthy thinking becomes automatic and takes the place of your current negative automatic bad thinking habits.

 Good luck!

[ download this post as a PDF for easy printing : diaphraghmatic_breathing_exercise ]

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