How you breathe has an enormous effect on the state of your physiology and consequently on the state of your mind. Whenever you are tense or anxious the breath usually becomes faster and shallower. This leads to an imbalance in the oxygen/carbon-dioxide ratios in the blood.
When breath becomes very rapid and shallow this is called hyperventilating or over-breathing. When you hyperventilate carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed too rapidly from your blood and the balance of your blood gases is altered, leading to a range of symptoms, all of which can be present in anxiety or panic attacks. (This is why breathing into a paper bag can be helpful as you re-inhale expelled air which normalises your carbon dioxide levels.)
More common perhaps, is chronic mild over-breathing, which can result in the same symptoms:
• Feeling anxious, nervous, or tense.
• Frequent sighing or yawning.
• Feeling that you can't get enough air or need to sit up to breathe.
• A pounding and racing heartbeat.
• Problems with balance.
• Numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth.
• Chest tightness, fullness, pressure, tenderness, or pain.
• Gas, bloating, or burping.
• Vision changes, such as blurred vision or tunnel vision.
• Problems with concentration or memory.
• Squeezing chest pain
• In severe cases you may lose consciousness (fainting)
It will also reduce your blood pressure and slow down your metabolism. As any mother who has used the Lamaze technique or yoga breathing methods in childbirth can tell you, breathing techniques can also significantly reduce the experience of pain.
When in a peaceful, calm and contented state of mind the breathing automatically becomes rhythmic and slow. Consciously slowing and deepening the breath will help to stimulate those same states of mind. Mindful breathing techniques can quickly halt a panic attack and reduce anxiety levels, whereas hyperventilation can be a trigger for anxiety and panic.
If you experience anxiety or panic attacks, it is important to practice your breathing exercises for anxiety reduction between attacks initially. For some, the feeling of not being able to breathe is one of the symptoms of their attacks and there may be great anxiety about breathing in general.
The added focus on trying to breathe properly during an attack can lead to a frantic attempt to control the breath in the hope that this will stop ‘it’, whereas the main need at these times is to stop fighting your symptoms, to allow the body to become like a rag doll and let the symptoms wash over you without resistance. This is the quickest way to end an attack (see stopping panic attacks).
So, initially try to get a feel for correct breathing when anxiety levels are not so high.
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