If you want to know how to use your breath to stop anxiety in its tracks, you might be one of the 1 in 5 people that suffer from anxiety attacks*. You are not alone, I am one of those people. Or, maybe you are close to someone who suffers.
*Statistic from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and is based on a study of residents of the United States. This statistic may be different in other countries. (source)
I was at Disneyland the last time I had a surprise attack. We were celebrating my daughter’s graduation from high school with a day at Disney and a day at California Adventure. While in line for the Rise of the Resistance Star Wars experience, which is epic and something you should do if you get the chance, I started to lose it. I felt like the tunnel we were standing in was closing in on me, and I am not known to be claustrophobic. The sounds of the countless conversations going on around me seemed to increase in volume with every second. I felt like I was getting hysterical, and that made me panic more because when I am having an attack I have an irrational fear of other people noticing and thinking less of me. I was able to turn to my breath to stop anxiety in its tracks that day, and you can too.
A Google search will pop up lists of ways to manage anxiety. But, many of the tips for managing anxiety are difficult to do when you’re in public and have an unexpected attack. If you keep reading, you will learn:
- What an anxiety attack feels like so you can recognize one before it gets out of control,
- Why I recommend breath for managing attacks, especially those surprise attacks that sneak up on you in public places,
- 5 proven techniques for using your breath to stop anxiety, and
- A bonus technique that you can use along with breathing when anxiety turns into panic.
Let’s get started!
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
If you are one of the lucky ones reading up on this to support a loved one that has frequent and/or severe anxiety attacks, bless you. Your friend or family member is lucky to have a supporter like you in their lives. This list will help you recognize when they are having an attack because they might not be able to tell you verbally while it’s happening.
If you are one of those 1 in 5 like I am, scanning your body often to look for signs of an impending attack can help you stop it before it starts.
Emotional Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack:
- Overwhelming fear or worry that won’t go away, even when you/they are safe
- Feelings of apprehension or dread (this can often lead to procrastination or “flaking out”)
- Crankiness or irritability
- Extreme vigilance (always on the look-out for danger)
- Expecting the worst-case scenario to occur (this is extra frustrating when a part of you knows it will not happen, but is not able to win over the part of you that is convinced it will happen)
Physical Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack:
- Inability to stop moving; restlessness (pacing, leg-shaking, picking at cuticles, nail-biting, constantly shifting position, etc.)
- Aches and pains caused by too much tension in the body (the shoulders/neck and lower back/hips, in particular, are prone to holding anxiety)
- Pounding or racing heart
- Quick, shallow breathing (sometimes leading to hyperventilation)
- Muscle twitches or tremors (I am prone to eye twitches)
- Fatigue (Does anyone else feel tired most of the time?)
- Upset stomach/having to use the bathroom more often than normal
If you have not had an attack yourself, you can tell from the above list that they are NO FUN. But why use breath as a solution? Why not take a pill? Or self-medicate after work? I am glad you asked…
Why I Recommend Breath to Stop Anxiety
First thing first: I am not telling you not to seek medical help for anxiety attacks. If you feel you need medicine to help, you might be right. Anxiety has many suspected causes, and one of them is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Do talk with your doctor about your anxiety and work together to come up with the best management plan for you.
Okay, now that’s done, so we can get into why breath is the best resource for handling an attack, especially a public one.
- It’s Discreet. Remember my Disneyland story? I used breathing to calm myself and literally, no one noticed but my oldest daughter. She only noticed because she is perceptive, and saw me have many, many attacks before that one.
- No Side Effects. Breathing techniques have no negative side effects. Common anxiety medications have a long list of potential side effects, which you should always discuss with your doctor before taking them. A drink (is it ever just one?) after work can cause a hangover, and in cases where you self-medicate too often, liver failure. If you’re in a state where marijuana is legal, that might be a better choice than alcohol, but even that can lead to lethargy and/or the munchies.
- You Can Use It Anywhere, At Any Time. With the breath, you don’t have to be prepared for an attack. You don’t have to pack supplies before you leave the house “just in case”. It’s free, no prescription is needed, and you can use it at any time in any location (except underwater!).
- It Works. If you need to see proof, here it is. Otherwise, you can trust me on this, or try it out for yourself.
Now that you know that the breath is your go-to for unexpected attacks, let’s talk about how to use it.
How To Breathe Your Way Through An Attack
Breathe through your nose. When you are having an attack, you may feel like you are not getting enough air. The truth is the opposite, you are getting way too much air, way too fast. This is because your flight or fight response has been activated. To turn it off, you have to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. That sounds complicated, but the easiest way to start is to make sure you are breathing through your nose, and concentrate on making your breaths slow and steady.
Use your diaphragm. How? Concentrate on filling up the lower part of your lungs. Pay attention to the feeling as the oxygen fills those lower chambers and makes your belly rise. Exhale and feel your belly lower. Putting a hand on your belly can help you focus on this sensation. If done right, the shoulders and chest will be still while your belly moves in and out with each breath.
Extend the exhale. Take a normal inhalation through the nose, then exhale for a count of ten, imaging anxiety leaving your body through the breath as you do. Do this about five times in a row. This helps to rid the body of the excess oxygen intake caused by that triggered flight or fight reflex by releasing more air than you take in.
Alternate Nostril Breathing. I learned this one in yoga class, and it became my favorite for anxiety headaches. Place your thumb next to one nostril and your pinky finger next to another, with the other three fingers hanging out on your forehead between your eyebrows. If you are “woo-woo” like I am, you know this is where your third eye is located.
To start, inhale through both nostrils, hold for a second, then use your thumb or pinky finger to plug your left nostril and exhale through the right.
Keeping the left nostril plugged, inhale through the right nostril, plugging both nostrils at the top of the inhale.
Then, unplug your left nostril and exhale. Inhale through the open left nostril, and again plug both nostrils at the top of the inhale.
Next, release your right nostril again and exhale/inhale. Repeat this pattern for 3-5 minutes to help you find your balance (and get rid of your headache).
Try a 4-7-8 breath. All you need to do is breathe in for a count of four, hold the air in your lungs for a count of seven, and then exhale as evenly as possible for a count of eight. Repeat until you feel calm.
Bonus Tip for When Anxiety Turns Into Panic
If an anxiety attack gets out of control, it can turn into a panic attack. A panic attack is like an anxiety attack on steroids. People having one often go to the ER because they believe they are having a heart attack or are otherwise dying. If you have an attack that is turning into full-blown panic, your breath might need some backup. That is where the 5-4-3-2-1 technique comes in.
How to 5-4-3-2-1
Wherever you are find:
5 objects (rug, chair, pencil, window, door). Look at each object and try to memorize every detail of its appearance.
4 sounds (coughing, hum of air conditioner, cars passing by on the street, a baby crying in the distance). Try to focus on one sound at a time.
3 textures (smooth tile floor, shaggy rug, scratchy wool skirt). If possible, touch each one, focusing on the different feelings on your skin. If you can’t get up and touch, notice the differences in the textures visually.
2 smells. (coffee brewing, lavender scented candle burning). Again, focus on each one for a couple of seconds. How do they make you feel? Do they bring up any memories for you?
1 taste. What does your mouth taste like? Pro Tip: If you have attacks often, keep small mints, candies, or chocolates with you. Pop one in your mouth and focus on the taste and sensations as it dissolves. Chocolate can be messy, but because it helps us release endorphins, it can be extra beneficial for this purpose.
You’re Ready to Use Your Breath to Stop Anxiety In Its Tracks
I hope you found these tips helpful, and I would love to hear from you if you have any breathing techniques I should add to this list! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 in 5 of you have anxiety attacks often enough to cause disruption to everyday life. If you learned something, do me a favor and share this with someone else who needs it.
It will make my freaking day if you send me a video of you using one of these techniques and mention that you learned it from this post!
If you also need help to get (or stay) motivated, I’ve got you! Sign up to receive my custom curated playlist of 3+ hours of motivating music to improve your mood even if you’re having a terrible, no good, really bad day. It’s FREE! All you have to do is agree to get emails from me full of helpful hints like these. I promise I won’t spam you!
Now get out there and use your breath to stop anxiety in its tracks!
Love and Laughter,
Your Favorite Basic B 😘
For more tips on how to live a more balanced life, check out 5 Reasons Why You Need Fun (and 5 Ways to Have More) and 9 Simple Shifts to Create a Life You Don’t Need to Escape From by yours truly!