Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
I have dealt with anxiety and a panic disorder since I was a teen. I have years when it’s manageable and years when things are, well, totally out of control.
I hit a low point a few years ago, when I was dealing with daily panic attacks and a nervous system that was totally shot. My kids were still little, I wasn’t sleeping much, and looking back, I think I was living with an undiagnosed case of postpartum anxiety.
In any case, I was in a bad place. A bad, terrifying place that I couldn’t see a way out of. I went back to therapy. I tried to make some changes in my life as a mom (scheduled naps, extra help from husband and extended family, etc.). But the one thing that I didn’t expect would help me the most was adopting a meditation and breathing practice.
I was reluctant at first, because who the heck can sit down and relax when their thoughts are racing out of control pretty much all the time? Also, who has the time for that with little kids underfoot? Still, I got myself a little guided meditation app on my phone, plugged in my headphones, and lay there for 5-10 minutes a day listening to the soothing voices and simple instructions. I usually fit it in when my toddler napped or after my kids were asleep.
The kinds of mediations I was doing not only involved guided imagery and various relaxation techniques, but also some pretty specific breathing techniques — which honestly were the things that seemed to help me the most.
In a nutshell, I practiced inhaling slowly for a number of seconds, then exhaling slowly, usually for an equal number of seconds. It was a technique similar to one called resonant breathing, or coherent breathing, where you are supposed to slowly breathe in for a count of six seconds, then gently breathe out for another six seconds. You then repeat this circuit for 5-10 minutes daily, for practice.
In an interview with Tonic, Patricia Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, says that coherent breathing is a technique used frequently by trauma survivors and adopted from practices of indigenous peoples around the world.
“We wanted to identify a short program that could be quickly given to people, that they would have immediate relief within 5 or 10 minutes, and that over time would produce long-term changes,” said Gerbarg, who studies the technique and wrote a book about it called The Healing Power of Breath.
I’d always heard the theory that breathing would help with anxiety. You always hear people say “Just breathe!” when someone is anxious — which, to be frank, is usually the exact wrong thing to say, as the pressure and potential shaming usually only causes more anxiety.
Then again, when I tried it for myself and began incorporating it into my life — not just waiting until I was mid-panic attack — it was an entirely different ballgame. I found that practicing breathing on a daily basis helped me feel calmer overall. With practice, I was able to use this technique when I began to feel a panic attack coming on.
Not only that, but if I caught it in time (this was key), I could prevent myself from getting worked up into a full-blown panic state. It was like “panic attack insurance,” so to speak.
I began to study the science behind it all, and it was fascinating. It turns out that stress, anxiety, and most notably panic attacks, are part of what is called the “stress response” and actually make physical changes in our body. You are flooded with “fight or flight” hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), which can make it hard to get yourself out of a “panic loop.”
On the other hand, breathing — especially deep and slow breathing like I was practicing — is a natural way to counteract all those stress hormones. As Harvard Health Publishing explains, breathing naturally elicits the “relaxation response,” which slows your heart rate, stabilizes your blood pressure, and relaxes you.
The beautiful thing is, you have your breath with you wherever you go.
After a few months of daily breathing and meditation practice, I found myself actually using the breathing technique in daily life, especially when I felt those panicky feelings rising up in me. For example, if my kids were lying on the floor crying, unwilling to put their shoes on and walk out the door when it was really, really time to go (being late was one of my panic attack triggers), I would just make myself do my breathing technique.
Literally as soon as the first moment of panicky feelings started to spike, I’d take a deep breath in, count a couple of seconds off, then count an equal number of seconds in. Sometimes I felt like nothing good was coming of it, and the panic still rose in me and sometimes spun out of control.
However, a few times I found myself able to actually bring things down before they totally spiraled, and it was like, “Whoa. My breath can do that?”
Listen: The method isn’t foolproof. There are certain times in my life that things are just too stressful and triggering for me to handle. Even though my kids are older now, and somewhat easier to handle, I’m balancing their care with being a full-time WAHM, and that can cause a whole lotta stress for sure. Sometimes I can’t handle it all, and I break, the anxiety and panic coursing through my body like it never left.
That said, I’ve been practicing this breathing technique for a few years now, and it’s become almost second nature for me to start breathing as soon as the slightest stress enters my life. I also use the technique if I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I think of it as a pretty solid prevention against a panic attack — a way for me to stop anxiety and panic in their tracks before the sh*t hits the fan.
I’ve taught my kids the technique too, and sometimes when we’re all kind of losing our minds over here, we’ll breathe together, and things will be just … better. Calmer. Breathing is something you always have with you at your disposal, and with a little practice, you can use it as an actual tool to relax you, eliminate panic, and feel like yourself again.