Let’s Get Curious About Breathing and Anxiety

About the Author

Anxiety and fear can have a significant impact on both our emotional and physical health. In working through anxieties and fears it can be helpful to know something of how God designed our bodies to manage them. The intricacies of the design are beyond the scope of this article, but they inform the four introductory thoughts presented here: Slowing, Sighing, Speaking and Singing. But first – a curiosity. 

A Curiosity About Breathing

Breathing is somewhat unique as a bodily function. A curious observation about breathing is that it is under both voluntary and involuntary control. In other words, our central nervous system (CNS) manages our breathing without our having to think about it, similar to heartbeat. But unlike our heartbeat, we can override our involuntary breathing by conscious choice. We can take long or slow breaths, or even hold our breath. Those statements could be the simple observations of a middle school science student. But such a simple observation has the potential for some profound implications. Consider this excerpt from the scientific journal, Progress in Brain Research:

  • Breathing behavior is… highly influenced by emotional states. This behavior is greatly affected by negative (panic, anxiety, and pain) and positive emotions (pleasure, love, and relief), and one of the purposes of this review is to discuss the possibility that breathing is modulated by various circadian, cognitive, and emotional brain states, and at the same time itself plays a major role in centrally affecting emotions, arousal, and other brain states. (Ramirez, 2014, p. 2)
  • That curiosity about breathing is a little deep, but a little more simply stated: Most people recognize that thoughts and emotions affect breathing, but isn’t it also possible that the body works in the opposite direction as well and that breathing can affect thoughts and emotions. The voluntary/involuntary interplay sets the stage for some pretty interesting dynamics in the human body. Dynamics that can serve us well when we’re stressed – even more if we learn how to make use of them.
  • To this day scientists continue to search for the exact interaction between voluntary and involuntary control of breathing and the subsequent implications for physical and mental health. Even so, there are some aspects of breathing that we have understood for centuries in terms of their affects though the “whys” and “hows” remain a mystery to modern science. Neuroscience is a fascinating field of study, and scientists in the field of neuroscience are increasingly able to explain the intricacies and complexities of why and how the human body functions. While those scientists are chasing the adrenaline of discovery, let’s slow down and observe the results of those complexities – which are thankfully not too complex to put into practice.


Slow Your Breathing

Helpers of a variety of backgrounds throughout history have used breathing techniques to assist in calming. Whether it is called “deep breathing,” “belly breathing,” “diaphragmatic breathing,” or some other variant, the intent is largely the same. Your body, in a calm state, does not require as much oxygen to function and therefore has a lower respiration rate. Conversely, your body is also designed to respond to a slower breath rate by calming the body. So slow down… and take a deep breath.


Sighing

Sighing is a natural bodily function that occurs more frequently than we tend to notice. Some research indicates 12 times an hour is not unusual. More important than frequency however is function. Sighing is how our body resets breath rate – provides for respiratory stability. That doesn’t sound terribly important until you consider a scientific observation of mice that were physiologically incapable of sighing. They all died of issues associated with lung failure (Ramirez, 2014, p. 3).
Sighing shows up throughout history in popular culture and literature. Almost always as an emotional expression, the reference can be as varied as happiness or boredom. Scientists of psychophysiology suggest there is a stability component of sighing that helps the human body to restore calm after emotional arousal in a manner similar to its stabilizing affect on breath rate (Vlemincx et al., 2013, p. 25).
The take away for sighing? Try inducing a sigh when you feel anxious. Though you might let your friends or loved ones know what you’re up to so that you don’t send an unintended message along with your sigh. 

Speaking

Whether the voice of a parent or a favorite actor or voice-over artist, we’ve all probably relaxed while listening to the “soothing voice” of another at some point in our lives. It does not seem obvious to most, but consider the possibility that we can engage our own calm voice to calm our anxious thoughts.
Try varying your speaking tone and prosody (emphases, rhythms and sounds). You can do this by sitting with a friend and telling a story or reading a book out loud. As you vary your speech take a moment – pause and notice any differences you experience within your body with regard to mood or tension.  

Singing

Intuitively singing might simply be considered the combination of some of the previous thoughts mentioned in this article. Alas, singing is more than the sum of its parts. The extended exhalation associated with verbalizing the words and sounds of song coupled with the rise and fall of the voice to meet the notes of that particular song all come together in an amplifying combination. Additionally, I am compelled to consider my own experience after coming out of the Covid pandemic social isolation of 2020. I distinctly remember feeling overwhelmed with positive emotion upon joining my local congregation in song after that extended time away. King David would probably identify with this as well. He wrote almost half of the Psalms in the Bible, and he wrote them to be sung. Psalm can reasonably be translated – song. So try singing your way through some of the Scriptures.
A variation for those who consider their singing something not to be shared with others – try humming. Or even chanting. It might be a first step toward a new hobby, or it could possibly be an adequate outlet in itself.


A Curiosity… Indeed!

Slowing, Sighing, Speaking and Singing. Practical tidbits that I hope to explain in much more detail and with much more practicality in future articles. But there is something deeper there too. A curiosity. I referred to the interplay of the voluntary and involuntary as something that sets the stage for a curious complexity, but one that plays out in parallel with such humble simplicity. Much like the Gospel. Simple enough that a child can understand. But with a depth that compels the keenest minds to go deeper still. I hope to mirror that dynamic as I continue to write on this topic. Observing the magnificence of God’s creative genius and the simplicity and elegance in the design. My prayer is to both guide you to some relief and to yet a deeper thirst along the way as well. May we heal and grow deeper in Jesus together. 

References

Ramirez, J.-M. (2014). The Integrative Role of the Sigh in Psychology, Physiology, Pathology, and

You May Also Like

Leave a Comment