A seriously simple starting point for using breath to ease anxiety

If you suffer from stress or anxiety you'll know how horrible it feels when you get stuck in fight or flight mode. The breathing practice I come back to again and again to help calm my nervous system and shift to a more neutral state is the extended exhalation breathing pattern. 

To put it really simply, the inhalation activates the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response), and the exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for rest, relaxation, and digestion). 

We need both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to function, but in modern day life many of us have an over stimulated and over active sympathetic nervous system.

By extending the exhalation you spend more time stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and can hopefully shift a little away from the fight or flight response. As well as the physiological benefits, by being mindful of your breath you can move your attention inwards and allow some of those excess unhelpful thoughts fall away. 

Ideally you would do this lying down, knees bent and soles of the feet on the ground hips width apart, or with your lower legs resting up in a chair. But, while a quiet space where you can fully relax is great, the wonderful thing about this breathing practice is you can do it virtualy anywhere at any time!

When anxiety hits this is my go-to practice regardless of who I am with or what I am doing. 

The basic premise is to take a longer exhalation than inhalation, ideally the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. But if this is uncomfortable and you find yourself straining then start with an even inhale and exhale and slowly start to increase the length of the exhale. 

Phase one

Matching inhalation and exhalation -->

  1. Inhale for a count of 5 
  2. Pause 
  3. Exhale for a count of 5
  4. Pause
  5. Breathe in the pattern until breath is even and comfortable

You always have the option to start with and continue with a shorter count, for example, start by counting to 3 and see how that feels.

Phase two

Lengthening the exhalation -->

  1. Inhale for a count of 5
  2. Pause
  3. Exhale for a count of 6
  4. Pause 
  5. Inhale for a count of 5
  6. Pause 
  7. Exhale for a count of 7 
  8. Continue by extending the exhalation each time until the exhalation is for a count of 10 and the inhalation is still for a count of 5

Again if this count is too long start with a shorter count and work up to the length that feels right for you, even just a slightly longer exhale compared to the inhale can create a significant shift in the nervous system.

If I am able to do this for about 20 minutes I feel a long lasting effect throughout my day, but if I am out and about I just do it for as long as I can. Often a couple of minutes will help nip an anxiety attack in the bud and allow me to get on with the rest of my day.