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Friday Q&A: Breath Practices for Anxiety

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

Friday Q&A: Breath Practices for Anxiety

Statue and Bird by Melina Meza

Q: I’ve been having bouts of anxiety lately, especially first thing in the morning after I wake up. Is there a short, simple practice that I can do before I get out of bed that will calm me down so I can start my day in a better emotional state?
A: There definitely are some simple breath practices that you can use in the morning before you get up as well as any time during your day that you may find very helpful! In his post How Your Breath Affects Your Nervous System, Baxter gives the scientific background about why breath practices are so effective. And I myself regularly use a simple breath practice to help me relax when I’m feeling stressed and to help me fall back to sleep if I awake in the night.
I discussed your question with Baxter, and together we came up with a list of three practices that you can choose from. In general, all three are different ways of lengthening your exhalation. Because your heart rate is naturally slower on your exhalation than on your inhalation, making your exhalation longer than your inhalation begins to slow down your overall heart rate, sending a message to your brain that everything is more peaceful and calm than it was five minutes ago. This message encourages your brain to support this shift by activating the Rest and Digest or Relaxation Response (see The Relaxation Response and Yoga), which will reduce your stress hormones, quiet your mind, and hopefully quell your anxiety.Try all three techniques and see which ones work best for you. When you are initially learning the practices, it is best to do them for shorter periods. But I recommend over time working your way up to ten-minute sessions because it seems to take about 7 or 8 minutes for the Relaxation Response to take full effect. However, in a pinch, even a minute or two of a simple breath practice can help head off an anxiety attack, so even a short session can be very beneficial.
Exhalation Pausing. The simplest breath practice you can do is to pause briefly at the end of each exhalation. You can do this practice in a seated position or even lying in bed, on your back with your head supported by a pillow. Start by practicing basic breath awareness. This means focusing your mind on how your breath moves in your body, perhaps on how your belly rises and falls with your breath or, if it’s easier, how your chest moves with your breath. You could also focus on the more subtle sensations, such as the feeling of your breath moving in and out or your nostrils or, if you prefer, the sound your breath makes in your body. I actually like to lie on my back with my hands on my belly because that makes it very easy for me to feel the movement in my abdomen.Now you’re ready to try pausing at the end of your exhalation. When you reach the end of your next exhalation, simply add a beat or two—without straining—before moving on to your inhalation. Keep it relaxed and easy. And if the practice irritates you in any way, simply return to your natural breath.If at any point you realize your attention has wandered from your breath (it will, of course), simply—and without self-judgment—bring your attention back to your breath.Bhramari (Buzzing Bee) Breath. This breath practice, in which you make a buzzing sound as you exhale, naturally lengthens your exhalation. To practice a simple version of Bhramari, start by inhaling normally through your nose. Then, keeping your mouth closed, make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in your throat as you exhale. As you make the buzzing sound—which should last the entire length of the exhalation—tune into the literal vibration of the sound waves in your throat and even in your skull and brain. After you complete your exhalation, inhale through your nose, and if you're comfortable, repeat the cycle. Try to make your transitions into and out of each humming exhalation as smooth as possible. See Pranayama for Everyone: Bhramari Breath for more information.1:2 Breath. In this breath practice, you actually control the length of your inhalations and exhalations, and aim for a ratio of 1:2, for example, a one-second inhalation and a two-second exhalation or a two-second inhalation and a four-second exhalation. 
Before starting this practice, spend a little time observing your natural breath and mentally counting the length of your typical inhalations and exhalations. If your inhalation is longer than your exhalation, start by making them the same length by consciously slowing your exhalation. 
Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, try gently increasing the length of your exhalation by releasing air more slowly. Keep your breathing relaxed so you are not straining, and if at any time you begin to feel agitated, simply return to your natural breath. As long as your breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase your exhalation bit by bit until it is twice as long (but no more than twice as long) as your inhalation. If the 1:2 ratio feels uncomfortable or if you're gasping on your next inhalation, return to a ratio that is more comfortable. You can gradually work up to the 1:2 ratio with practice. Another way to lengthen your exhalation to a 1:2 ratio is to use a gentle version of Ujjayi breathing for your exhalation only. To do this, breath in normally through your nose, with a relaxed feeling in your throat and vocal cords. Then, as you start to exhale, slightly constrict your throat, keeping it very gentle and relatively quiet. This action in your throat is similar to the one who use on your sunglasses when you try to clean them off, and it will naturally slow down your exhalation a bit and bring you closer to the 1:2 ration. As you practice this form of breathing, relax your throat as you inhale, engage your throat a little as you exhale. Baxter recommends doing a set number of repetitions of the 1:2 breathe, such as six rounds or twelve rounds. Then let your breath return to its natural length and depth, and notice how things feel internally. 
If controlling your breath in this manner is stressful, practice the exhalation pausing practice described above instead, and maybe give the 1:2 practice another try after you have some experience with breath work under your belt.
Because chronic stress can exacerbate or even cause anxiety (see Chronic Stress: An Introduction), I think it is also important that you address your overall stress levels in general (see The Relaxation Response and Yoga). So see if you can manage to incorporate some time for gentle or restorative yoga or any form of conscious relaxation into your schedule.


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