Breath Work: Why Bother?

Most therapists who treat anxiety disorders will teach you breath work. They also call it diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing. But I don’t think that many teach you why this is so important in managing anxiety.

Why does the why matter? Because if you understand a little more about the positive effect this can have on your body during panic and anxiety, you are more likely to use it.

There are three solid reasons to do breath work.

breath work

First, your lungs. They have several sets of lobes. When you are panic breathing, your breath stays in the top portion, up in your chest and is shallower. This is your limbic system in action helping your body to get ready for fight or flight. When you don’t actually NEED to flee or fight. Staying in the shallow breathing mode keeps your body revved up unnecessarily. So you need to slow it down by taking deep, diagrammatic breaths that reach the bottom set of lobes.

Second, breath work buys you time when you are spinning out into panic. When panicked, the sympathetic nervous system has been engaged. This means your emotional brain, seated in the amygdala, has hijacked your reasoning power. Your brain needs a few seconds to get from the emotional brain to your reasoning brain, the frontal cortex. When it doesn’t get this buffer of time, we often say or do things that we can’t easily unsay or undo, setting the stage for regrets and rumination. Can you think of a time when you did or said something you regretted? This is what’s going on.

The most miraculous part of this skill is that your body cannot be in both the fight/flight mode and the calm-at-rest mode at the same time. Therefore simply doing the breathing can shift you to a calmer place.–Page Rutledge, LCSW

Third, and the the most miraculous to me—is that your body cannot be in both the fight/flight mode and the calm-at-rest mode at the same time. Taking several good deep breaths will shift your limbic system back into a more calm state, allowing you to regroup and refocus, and to recalibrate any regrettable actions you might have been contemplating.

So remember: The 3 reasons to practice your breath work are:

  1. It helps you to calm the physical aspects of anxiety, especially the shallow breathing.
  2. It buys your time to let your rational brain come up for air, and finally…
  3. Taking 6-10 good deep breaths will move you from that panicky fight-or-flight feeling to a calmer, more at-ease state. This helps you to not only feel better, but to make better decisions. It increases the sense of control you have over your anxiety and your body’s reactions to it.

Daily practice will make the breath work a habit (your goal) that you will use automatically to manage your anxiety. Use TV commercials, stoplights, standing in line, and other times you find yourself routinely waiting to snatch a couple of minutes to practice a few good deep belly breaths. You will feel better and more centered every time. If you need help focusing, the breathing zone app is a great way to practice and is available on both android and apple platforms.

Would you like to learn more coping skills to manage your anxiety? Go ahead and call me or shoot me an email

P.S. I’m now offering online scheduling capability (the blue button at bottom of home page) and the option of online counseling sessions. Go to my web site for more information, paying attention to the FAQ’s in this area.