Blog: To Deep Belly Breath or Not....

If you’ve experienced panic attacks, someone somewhere along the line has probably told you to do deep breathing exercises. If you’re anything like me, you probably want to smack that person in the face.
When we are in the throes of a panic attack, deep belly breathing does NOT come naturally. We are in fight or flight mode, and our body actually wants to do the exact opposite. Our body wants to take short shallow breaths in order to bring in more oxygen because oxygen is energy, and we need a lot of it when we’re fighting or fleeing from a bear, or swarm of bees or the certain death that is flying in a tin can (aka airplane) at 30,000 feet.
Some books, programs and methods will instruct you NOT to do deep belly breathing when you feel anxious. This suggestion comes from the well-researched concepts of exposure therapy.  The idea behind exposure therapy is to slowly desensitize yourself to your fears by acting “normal” in the perceived scary situation. The more “normal” we act, the easier it is for our brain to see the perceived scary situation for what it actually is, quite benign. We wouldn’t try to force deep belly breathing in an ordinary situation; in fact, we probably wouldn’t be paying our breathing any attention at all.
However, there is also plenty of scientific evidence supporting the calming effect of deep belly breathing. This type of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is responsible for initiating our body’s relaxation response. Deep belly breathing can lower our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, which in turn helps us feel calmer. Deep belly breathing takes a bit of practice to master, but I’ve had many clients that have found it to be a very helpful tool when they start to feel anxious, the deep breathing exercise helps them to gain a little altitude over their anxiety and feel more grounded.
So, clearly it can be confusing to know whether or not we should participate in deep belly breathing. The answer is, do what’s right for you. Deep breathing was never my thing and I was still able to move past anxiety without it.  For others, deep breathing has been an invaluable tool. For me, deep breathing was always more useful when I was beginning to feel overwhelmed or when the anxious “what if” statements were creeping in, not so much when I was feeling pins and needles on the back of my neck and desperately looking for an exit. You don’t need deep belly breathing (or any single tool) to overcome anxiety, but if it’s something that helps you make a little more room for the anxiety when it pops up, then by all means, use it!