When we are more active, such as when we exercise, go up a flight of stairs or run for the bus, our breathing should increase. When we are relaxed—reading a book, watching TV or sleeping—our breathing goes down because our metabolism is slower.
Why do we find ourselves wanting to either take in a deep breath, or hold or suppress our breathing, in moments of stress, panic or anxiety?
Usually it is because we think attempting to control our breathing will help alleviate any and all body sensations that might be unpleasant (racing heart rate or tightness in the throat are common examples) and emotional dis-ease (sadness, grief, fear, etc.) that might come from a stressful event, such as a minor fall on the ice. Panic and anxiety can also occur just from the memory of that fall.
The trouble is that when we override and try to control these unpleasant bodily experiences, we don’t allow our nervous system to reach a threshold of activation that the body naturally wants.
Achieving that threshold will allow the entire body to reset—just like a thermostat will click off when the temperature reaches the correct point—hence relieving the stress naturally.
Therefore, taking a deep breath when we feel we can’t breathe or holding our breath when it feels like it wants to increase, is not allowing for the natural and organic reorganization of our nervous system to take place.
The result is that the stress doesn’t let go; instead, it gets shuffled back into our cells and the last thing we want is the stress staying inside our cells.
The next time you feel the urge to control your breath – or maybe you feel a bit stressed out, rather than taking in a breath, or trying to ignore the stress try this:
1) Bring your attention to the external environment around you: orient and scan – simply look around.
2) Look at simple stuff – a picture frame, window, clouds in the sky. Neutral stuff.
3) Be aware of the movement of your head and eyes looking at those objects. Actually feel the whole head and neck move. Definitely don’t stretch, just slow controlled aware movement
4) Become aware of your body sensations – simply notice them rather than trying to breath them away. Is there tension in the chest? Are your legs jittery? Bring attention to these areas and continue to look around.
5) Repeat this process until you sense your system cool down a bit.
PLEASE NOTE – If doing this series of suggestions is next to impossible for you and it brings up more stress, or you can’t feel any sensations within the body, then this is an indicator that there are stresses that are being held in your body – typically in these cases (and this is very common in our society) further work with trained professional is helpful to pinpoint what is being held in the system.