Anxiety is a terrible thing, unnerving and sometimes literally paralyzing, an enemy within. When anxiety strikes, breathing changes and the connection between breathing and anxiety becomes more obvious. Most of us experience it in some form or another, in part because we are all subject to the well-known fight or flight syndrome, a deeply buried part of our ancestral mind, the limbic system. This relationship between how we breathe and this state of anxiety is meant to save our life. Many things make us anxious: driving, TV, exams, medical procedures, crowds, public speaking—the list goes on, tailor-made to suit our individual personalities.
Whatever the source of anxiety and its relationship to breathing, the physiological effects are very much the same: an accelerated pulse, clamminess, trembling, tightened muscles of the throat and chest wall, and hyperventilation. The last is a largely short-term condition involving fast, shallow breathing from the chest and a swift loss in carbon dioxide, thus depriving the body of oxygen and triggering harmful changes in the body’s metabolism. The lack of oxygen and disturbed acid/alkaline balance in the body compound the anxiety change our relationship to breathing, often causing dizziness and blurred vision, among other effects.
If you have experienced anything like those symptoms, then you know how disorienting and debilitating they can be. We cannot often control the stressors that cause our anxiety, but, fortunately, we can do something about how we respond to them by learning how our breathing changes when anxiety appears.
Doctors and therapists have long recommended breathing exercises to control the muscles of the diaphragm in the treatment of anxiety. These exercises are on the right track, but there is more to them than all that. Learning how to balance respiratory blood gases and understand how this balance effects our breathing and it’s relationship to breathing, helps to restore breathing rhythms can reduced the symptoms of anxiety and may help to eliminate them altogether.