Reduce anxiety with belly breathing

Reduce anxiety with belly breathing

14 May 2018

Written by Jennie Bayliss

Over the years I have learnt many different tools, methods and ways to help people feel better about themselves. Belly Breathing is a potent, fast way to calm nerves, reduce anxiety and feel on safer ground again. It can take less than 5 minutes to change from a panicky state to one more grounded.

Breathing, is the most vital need for our survival than anything else. We can live for weeks without food, a few days without water, but only minutes without breath. I’ve noticed with both myself and my clients, that we tend to breathe shallowly and that for some people their body does the reverse of what you would expect when trying to breathe. In other words their chest and abdomen extends when they breathe out and it contracts when they breathe in!

How are you breathing just now? Notice it. We often only register our breathing when we get out of breath from exercise or sudden exertion. Just now, bring consciousness to your breathing. How deeply are you breathing? Is your body working with your breath? Most likely your chest is barely moving and each breath is shallow. Now I’d like for you to experience deep Belly Breathing to contrast and compare to your breathing right now. But before you do so, please note how you are feeling? Happy, sad, frustrated, irked, contented, anxious, worried…what exactly are you feeling?

Now you’ve noted how you are feeling, place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Begin by sticking your belly out (this helps you get the right co-ordination). Don’t be shy. And for all women who have trained themselves to keep their tummies tucked in, allow yourself to push your belly out so it looks like there is an inflated balloon inside your tummy. Now exhale through your mouth using your diaphragm (the muscle under your ribs) to deflate your lungs. Breath in through your nose and inflate your belly once more. Repeat a few times. As you get the hang of doing these deep breathes, notice whether or not your chest is moving. If it is, focus on keeping your ‘chest’ hand still, whilst watching your other hand rise with your breath in, and move inwards on your breath out. When you can see that it’s just your ‘belly’ hand that is moving, close your eyes and do 7 or 8 more of these deep breaths, gradually slowing the rhythm down so that you fill both your belly and exhale slowly.

Breathing deeply and slowly like this calms the body and the mind. Concerns, worry, anxiety and any feelings of panic are noticeably less than before this breathing exercise. Even just doing this exercise as described can have this impact. If you practice this for 10–15 minutes, it completely changes your emotional state for the better in a way that may truly surprise you. Who knew that breathing differently could have such an impact!

Breathing to release trauma

For many years  I have used, and have taught different breathing techniques. ‘Follow your breath’ is a mantra I sometimes use in mediation to help stop my mind going AWOL. I also teach people to breathe deeply to help them ground themselves before EFT or helping them release long held emotions. Before I discovered Belly Breathing, my deep breaths primarily inflated my chest. Breathing into my belly has a very different feeling to it.

I came across the Belly Breathing technique through the work of Peter Levine who uses it as part of his way of helping people let go of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In his book, ‘Waking the Tiger’Levine describes noticing animals like impala, when being hunted, for example a cheetah, had a very different response to humans when stressed. A simplified explanation goes like this. Impalas are grazing. Suddenly they become aware of a cheetah and they run for their lives. When an impala is on the verge of being caught, it will often fall to the ground as if dead—despite not (at this point) being injured. It has gone into a ‘freeze’ state that often confuses the cheetah and in doing so it may give the impala a possible, final chance to escape. The remaining impala herd, who have escaped the clutches of the cheetah, will soon be grazing once more as if nothing had happened. Imagine for a moment yourself being chased by a cheetah. After a lucky escape, I don’t expect you could even think of eating for quite sometime. Our brains are wired differently from an animal like an impala: and yet understanding the freeze state that can be easily seen in animals greatly helps us understand how fear is triggered over and over again because the natural process of dealing with stress was not completed in the way it is with the impalas.

Freezing is a primary response just like flight or fight. All of these responses are built-in survival techniques. Levine’s book is truly enlightening showing how people suffering from trauma—which includes not only the terrors of war or grave accidents, but also experiencing natural disasters, serious illness, the loss of a loved one, having a bad fall, surgery or even difficult births—need to complete the body’s natural response to stress. Paradoxically, our more advanced brains don’t let our bodies complete the response in the way that the impala (or other mammals with simpler brains) do. Levine’s methods help re-engage the body with the mind to complete the traumatic event and therefore let go of it so that, both metaphorically and in reality we can continue eating (living and breathing) without the trauma ‘frozen’ inside. I must stress that Belly Breathing is just a part of Levine’s technique. However, I have discovered this breathing alone is remarkably powerful to help release tension, anxiety and even panic.

Finding inner peace when the world is in a state of anxiety

We are living in a world that is on Amber Alert. Terrorism, environmental changes and acts of war are ever closer to home. Even when we keep such news at arms length, subconsciously we absorb it all, leaving within us a constant, low-level anxiety. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of enormous change both politically and environmentally, which is happening far faster than anyone could have predicted even just a few short years ago.

Added to this, we don’t, as a rule, like change. As someone who helps people go through change and transformation, I know this first-hand. When you desire change and are really ready to make it happen, it is often still a challenging process to break free of old habits, beliefs and ways of thinking because it means stepping out of your comfort zone. So when change to our environment and situations is imposed upon us, resistance to accepting the new way is even more deeply entrenched. From a survival viewpoint we prefer (and choose) behaviours and environments that we believe is safe. In an atmosphere of (perceived) safety we allow ourselves to be expansive, creative and open to new ideas. Metaphorically this is like standing firmly on the ground with your arms open wide. By contrast, anxiety creates confinement, restriction and inertia. This is akin to a foetal position.

I see anxiety and other emotions as an energy source that are either light or heavy (see a more in depth explanation of emotions in my article, Clearing emotional baggage with EFT. I also see that when heavy emotions are not dealt with in a healthy way, energetically  they ratchet upwards. Anxiety is a heavy fear emotion which generally begins as disquiet, which can lead into feelings of insecurity, then develop in to worry, which if ignored can be become anxiety. This hasn’t yet reached its climax: anxiety often leads to feelings of distrust and from there it can escalate into terror, panic, being petrified and at it’s final stage becoming paralysed with fear (or as mentioned earlier: freezing).

As politicians try to find solutions to get us out of this big mess, they appear to be contracting instead of taking big bold steps forwards. As we witness their immobilisation we too contract into inaction and begin to fear the worst and the cycle begins to feed upon itself.

Most of us can do little to change what is largely out of hands with the bigger problems in the world, BUT we can change our own world, by not letting anxiety hold us back. If we are going to succeed, if we are going to find new solutions to our own world (and the wider world), we need to become expansive, creative and positive once more. It’s not about simply dismissing our  anxiety and worries: but realising our perception of what is going on and what is really going on may be miles apart. Worrying about the unknowns causes anxiety—and that I ask of you to let go of it, for it truly doesn’t help. We will be in a much better place for dealing with the changes that lie ahead of us if we are grounded and open to new ideas and solutions. And the best way to ‘feel’ this inside your own body and to quieten your mind is to breathe deep into your belly. Taking the time to sit and consciously breathe every day, can make a huge difference to how you feel inside. And I’d love for you to give it a try.

Receive my in-depth articles

Reflections newsletter signup

You may also like