Breathing is a tool we all have at our disposal yet we barely even think out it; if we grasp the techniques of breathing effectively then we can lower emotional arousal to help reduce anxiety and panic. We take our breath for granted, and often when worried or anxious our breath is the first thing to respond, we take shallow breaths or breathe much quicker/deeper, all of which mean we can feel lightheaded, our heart rate can increase and something feels different in our chest or throat, leading to even more panic.
When anxious, our Sympathetic Nervous System is activated sending us into ‘fight or flight’ mode, this is the body’s way of getting us ready for action and why we feel suddenly very pumped – the heart races, muscles feel tense, the tummy feels loose, hands sweat etc. However, breathing techniques stimulate the opposite system – the Parasympathetic Nervous System – this allows a relaxing of the body, which is described as ‘rest and digest’. Out-breaths decrease your blood pressure, dilate your pupils and slow your heart rate – lowering emotional arousal in the process. Practising a breathing technique a few times a day will lower your overall stress levels in the long term.
The most important thing to remember is that the out breath helps to stimulate the relaxation response. When we breath in, our receptors are stimulated to quicken our heartbeat, increase adrenalin production and increase breathing rate. When we breathe out, these receptors are stimulated to slow our heartbeat, reduce breathing rate and decrease adrenaline production, in other words: as we breath in we get excited, as we breath out we relax. It stands to reason then that a breathing technique with longer out-breaths than in-breaths will be more effective at lowering emotional arousal. Here’s how to do the ‘7:11’ technique, as it’s as easy as it sounds:
1 . Breathe in for a count of 7
2. Then breathe out for a count of 11
Make sure that when you are breathing in, you are doing deep ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ (you are breathing into your belly and can feel it inflate) rather than shallower ‘chest’ breathing. You do not need to take huge, deep breaths, just gentle rhythmic breathing is needed. Too much oxygen can make you feel dizzy.
If counts of 7 or 11 feel too long, then reduce the count to breathing in for 3 and out to 5, or whatever suits you best, as long as the out breath is longer than the in-breath. The numbers do not need to be counted as seconds, just whatever feels comfortable for you!
Try to practise this technique as often as possible, not just when you’re anxious or panicky, then when you do feel panic rising you will know how to use this technique effectively. The calming effect can be felt immediately. This is one of the most powerful techniques known for panic attacks, not only does it help to restore balance to the Parasympathetic Nervous System, but it can help distract from worrying thoughts too. Happy breathing!