They say, “Agony visits the head of a writer.” With that as context, I tend to view anxiety as the annoying relative who often drops by for a visit.
In this pandemic period, a writer, or anyone right now, is finding that grating and unwelcome relative has not only come to visit, but wants to stay in a room, rent-free. You know, until this whole public crisis blows over. Many of us feel anxiety’s presence as we are worried about job prospects, the health of a loved one, or due to what seems to be a world turned upside down.
What can you do? Breathe.
“What? That won’t work” Some would say.
Years ago, I might have said that. Which is ironic, if not hypocritical. I’m a person who used to do breathing exercises ever since I started in martial arts as a kid.
When I competed in martial arts tournament fights, deep, slow breathing is how I would concentrate and calm myself before fighting. A calming state before launching into a very active state (giving and receiving punches and kicks).
Why I didn’t give breathing credit.
I thought of breathing exercises as a just tool to enhance focus on being an intense fighter, not one with a calm mind and body.
That’s because in a fight, with blood pressure surging and harder breathing, you don’t remember the calm state before – or even if it helped you and your body keep calm. What you remember, after the stressful situation, is your body trying to recover from the stress of fighting. You forget that your breathing also kept your mind and body from being overwhelmed or nervously overreacting and making mistakes driven by fear.
As a result, I never gave my breathing exercises any real credit for helping me face challenges. That is until, years later, when I incorporated better breathing in my daily meditation.
Why breathing exercises?
Adulthood is when I realized the physical and mental power of breathing.
That was when my body and a few medical professional set me on my path.
For a few years, the blood pressure tests from my doctor and eye doctor visits were registering that I had high blood pressure. Some of it caused by White Coat syndrome, and some more systemic high blood pressure causes. I dismissed it for years. Not smart and stupidly hardheaded.
Over the years it got to the point my doctors demanded that I go straight to the emergency room after each visit. Seeing numbers that were extremely dangerous, I finally gave in.
My primary doctor had prescribed medication. Through a prescription mix up, and my weekly travel schedule, I couldn’t get my first blood pressure medicine prescription. In the meantime, I took some advice and tried to start mitigating the danger through breathing.
I found that adding breathing exercises in my day and meditation helped reduce my stress and anxiety and bring my blood pressure reading closer to normal.
This difference was clear. If I checked my blood pressure before breathing, then after practicing breathing for 5 minutes, the spignometer would show a 10 to 20 point difference. For the record, a Mediterranean diet also helped get my blood pressure to normal – but that’s another story about medical information I’ll write about later.
I’m not a crystal and vibration kind of person. I like harder evidence and facts. I was curious and in doing some research about breathing, I found out why. Turns out, it comes down to the two phases of breathing. Parasympathetic and Sympathetic breathing.
Parasympathetic and sympathetic breathing.
Parasympathetic and sympathetic breathing are different parts of how you breathe. Specifically how you move air in and out of your body and their effect on your nervous system. Sympathetic is related more to how you inhale. Parasympathetic is how you exhale.
Each acts to serve and affect your body and nervous system in different ways.
Sympathetic breathing is meant to support more stressful body conditions. Like fighting or fleeing related to conflict or danger. Linked with your nervous system, it increases your heart rate and opens the airways to make breathing easier and get oxygen to parts of your body that may need it. Energy is released and muscles are enhanced in order to mobilize the body to take action. Your blood pressure goes up.
Back in my fighting days, this is what was released in times of fighting. The body is working to supply the body with the resources it needs to work at a heightened state.
It also happens with stress in the office place or a romantic date. When you are nervous or anxious, you can find your breathing speeds up and becomes shallower, that’s sympathetic breathing. Anyone whose been nervous or angry has felt that overwhelming feeling of their heart racing and blood pumping. If you were like me, you’ve had to fight that feeling that your body wants to jump out of your own skin while you are trying to remain calm.
The counterbalance to sympathetic. Parasympathetic breathing stimulates actions that calms sympathetic nerves. It consists of nerves arising from the brain and the lower end of the spinal cord and supplying the internal organs, blood vessels, and glands and keeps them from going to def con one.
How to breathe to reduce anxiety.
Breathe in a manner that favors the parasympathetic nervous system more. The way to do that is to practice breathing in and out, where you exhale at least twice as long as you inhale.
When I do it and listen to my body, I can feel the changes almost immediately. I can feel and hear my heart rate slow and skip a beat, especially as I breathe out.
And because I’m thinking about my breathing, my mind also moves away from thoughts that would cause anxiety. All those things together create the setting for relaxation and a better meditation.
It also works when I get stressed before writing or as a way to mentally let go of something that is creating anxiety, like the news. Freed, I can get back to my work.
So when you want to be freer from feelings and thoughts that might be holding you back. Breathe.