How Buteyko Breathing can help if you’re experiencing anxiety, stress and panic disorder.
I grew up watching my mother respond to stress – it was like a bomb had gone off. I remember her often saying she felt like she was going to have a heart attack and her breathing was very loud and noticeable. I could see her chest heaving when she was in those states. Yikes! No one ever wants to let stress let affect them that badly. You don’t want it impacting your own health negatively, or those around you. Thankfully these days we are able to openly have these conversations about stress and anxiety – and there are so many tools at our disposal that we can use to mitigate these conditions.
When working with clients, I often ask them how their breathing changes when they are stressed or anxious. The response is almost always the same – their breathing becomes more noticeable, usually in the upper chest and faster, many experiencing palpitations. I then ask the client to take a deep breath, to which they respond with a quick breath and a noticeable upper chest movement. When asked how they would feel if they kept on breathing like this, they typically say they’d become further stressed, lightheaded, dizzy and needing to lay down. When we feel stressed, it causes us to breathe more, so to take a big breath to calm down just will not help. Contrarily it will only serve to keep you in that state of stress or anxiety. What a stressed person needs instead, is slow, calm and quiet breathing that allows optimum oxygenation of the blood to our cells and our nervous systems to restore to normal.
- Stress Activation
- Breathing becomes faster
- More frequent sighing
- Breathing from the upper chest
- Breathing through the mouth
- Breathing becomes more noticeable
- Breathing becomes erratic
- Relaxation Activation
- Slow down breathing
- Suppress sighs if possible
- Breathe from the tummy
- Breathe through the nose
- Quieten and silence breathing
- Take slow, gentle, calm, quiet breaths
Stress and breathing
Many vital functions of the human body operate on an unconscious level; you don’t need to tell your heart to beat or your lungs to take in air, your body takes care of it for you. These basic functions are the responsibility of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which controls heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, urination, and sexual arousal. Most autonomous functions are involuntary, but some are also under some degree of conscious control, such as breathing, swallowing and sexual arousal.
The ANS is classically divided into two subsystems, known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which is responsible for rest and relaxation, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for stress responses.
Throughout human evolution, we have relied on our ‘fight or flight’ response whenever we are confronted with danger – whether it’s fleeing from a hungry lion or panicking about a corporate presentation. This automatic reaction of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) was first described by American doctor Walter Bradford Cannon, who lived from 1871 to 1945. Cannon noted that a perceived threat aroused the SNS and resulted in certain physical reactions, including an increase in blood pressure and rate of breathing, and a release of adrenaline to help us run faster or fight harder.
The most damaging of long term stress symptoms is habitual over-breathing. Increased breathing is a perfectly normal response to temporary stress as a rise in heart rate and breathing rate are necessary to prepare the body for a potentially sudden burst of action. But this natural response becomes abnormal when stress is sustained over the long term and breathing volume does not have an opportunity to normalise. As a result, the habit of breathing a volume of air greater that the body requires is developed, causing levels of carbon dioxide in the blood to lower. Too little carbon dioxide in the blood limits blood flow, reducing oxygenation of the heart and brain. It’s somewhat ironic that the brain receives less oxygen during the very time when alertness and mental concentration are acutely required, but this is exactly why it’s so difficult to think clearly under stress – how can a brain that is deprived of oxygen be expected to work properly?
The first accounts of the effects of stress on breathing were documented during the 1870s by military doctor De Costa after he observed an array of symptoms amongst soldiers returning from the front line. These soldiers had endured heavy stress over many months which altered their breathing habits and caused a biochemical change, resulting in symptoms such as:
- Fatigue upon exertion
- Excessive sweating
- Chest pain
Even when the soldiers returned to civilian life they faced a long and arduous process to regain their health. In 1937, scientists Kerr and colleagues coined the term ‘hyperventilation syndrome’ to describe the main cause of these symptoms. In other words: over-breathing.
There is much documented research to demonstrate that people who are prone to panic attacks and anxiety tend to have dysfunctional breathing patterns, including breathing irregularity and sighing frequently (1). Few healthcare professionals would pay much attention to the habit of sighing every few minutes, but to anyone trained in the Buteyko Method it immediately sets alarm bells ringing. Time and time again Buteyko practitioners have seen the detrimental effects that habitual sighing can have on a person’s health, and there is no doubt that the habit must be eliminated if dysfunctional breathing patterns are to be addressed.
Professor Donald Klein from the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University College claims that the feeling of suffocation caused by over-breathing provokes a very strong reaction in people who are susceptible to panic attacks, sending them into a state of panic and hyperventilation. Other studies have confirmed this, reporting that patients with panic disorders tend to hyperventilate and panic in response to an increase of carbon dioxide, triggering the fear response and a feeling of air hunger
Evidence also shows that the practice of reduced breathing exercises which modify carbon dioxide tolerance are therapeutic to those who suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and depression. The technique of observing and slowing down the breath has been shown to calm the mind and improve resilience in stressful situations. Practising breathing exercises that create a slight accumulation of carbon dioxide conditions the brain to tolerate higher concentrations of the gas. Gently subjecting the body to the feeling of air hunger for short periods of time will also reduce the body’s fear response, reducing the risk of panic and hyperventilation. After all, the sensation of air hunger is a natural occurrence that we experience several times a day, especially during physical exercise, and there is no need for the body to respond to the feeling with panic.
While many breathing techniques aim to slow down breathing, the Buteyko Method intentionally reduces breathing volume in order to create a tolerable need for air. In essence, the theory works like a vaccine – reducing breathing to create an air hunger is similar to giving the body a very small, controlled dose of symptoms, which can be a useful strategy to overcome the fear of the sensations that accompany a full-blown panic attack. While the long term goal is to reset the respiratory centre towards normal breathing volume, vast short term improvements have been witnessed in people who suffer regularly from panic attacks – sometimes as little as two hours after the commencement of breathing exercises. Noticeable breathing, frequent sighing, and breathing from the upper chest are all habits that can be easily addressed by re-educating or retraining the breath and reducing breathing volume to a healthy amount.
In addition to addressing hyperventilation over the long term, it is also very important to learn to control breathing during the early stages of an attack. A central feature of a panic attack is that the symptoms are cyclical, feeding back in on themselves and perpetuating the attack. If symptoms continue for several minutes, the increase to breathing volume serves to disturb blood gases, reducing the delivery of oxygen to the brain and causing the attack to become even more intense. Practising many small breath holds of 3-5 seconds each, or cupping the hands across the face to re-breathe exhaled carbon dioxide are two effective strategies to employ at the first signs of symptoms. The sooner you take control of your breathing, the better chance you have of stopping the attack before it takes hold.
Given the sensitive nature of panic disorders, breathing exercises should be introduced very gently. It’s essential to avoid creating too strong of an air shortage during reduced breathing as this could bring about sensations similar to the beginning of a panic attack. Instead, we begin with focusing on switching to nasal breathing and eliminating the habit of sighing. You can stop a sigh by swallowing or holding your breath anytime you feel one coming. If you miss a sigh, then simply exhale through your nose and hold your breath for five seconds to compensate afterwards. After a few days, when you are comfortable with nasal breathing, begin to incorporate gentle relaxation and reduced breathing exercises. Start by creating a mild feeling of air hunger for very short periods of thirty seconds at a time, practising ten times throughout the day. As you become more comfortable with the sensation of air hunger, lengthen the duration of the exercise from thirty seconds to up to two minutes. The most important point to remember is that your breathing volume reduces through relaxation. During each reduced breathing exercise, pay attention to whether you are tensing your body, or restricting your breathing by force. If so, abandon the exercise for a minute or so and focus on bringing a feeling of relaxation to your body, gently and gradually allowing your breathing to become quieter and calmer. Some people find it uncomfortable to observe their breathing, as the attention causes breathing rate to increase and become erratic. If you find this happening, concentrate on practising many Small Breath Holds and relaxation.
I know this is a lot to digest, so please don’t hesitate to contact me for help with Buteyko breathing for anxiety, stress or panic disorder. You will learn effective tools to use for the rest of your life.
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