Why taking a deep breath doesn’t work for calming nerves.

When we’re nervous, a well-meaning friend will often say “just take a deep breath”.  Unfortunately, what usually happens is we take a big, long sniff through the nose, lifting our shoulders up to our ears, with our chest up towards our chin followed by a huffy exhale. And while it might help you remember to breathe if you had momentarily forgotten, that kind of breathing doesn’t send any kind of relaxing vibe to your body or brain. Actually, it might make your anxiety worse.

Here’s why: Anxiety is an energy that lives high up in the body.  It makes our jaw tight, our throat clenched, our head swirly, our breath shallow and sends stress signals to our brain causing a terribly negative feedback conversation in which our racing mind and tensed-up body tell each other that something’s wrong.

Our breath has already lodged itself in our chest causing all those awful sensations. What we don’t need in that moment is to take our breathing higher.  And when we hear “deep breath”, our brains usually think vertical or up.

The mental shift to fix it: Instead of thinking deep breath, think down and wide.

  • Down: By directing our breath down into our lower lungs, we tap into nerve endings that connected to our parasympathetic nervous system triggering the relaxation response. It tells your body that all is good.  Your body then sends that message to the brain and a much more positive feedback conversation starts.
  • Wide: By thinking of a wide or broad breath, we access the back body which has more lung tissue helping us breathe more efficiently which brings more oxygen to our brain making us mentally sharper. Plus, it gives our body the sensation of being physically supported. Like an “I got you” from your body.

The method: Visualize that as you breathe your torso expands like a pufferfish. As you inhale, the perimeter of your ribcage puffs outward front, back and side to side.  As you exhale, it contracts back towards the center line of your spine.  To get the hang of it and really feel it at first, it can be helpful to sit with your back against a chair and place your hands on either side of your navel.  On the inhales, your back ribs will press into the chair as your belly and side ribs press into your hands and arms. When you start to get the hang of it, you’ll be able to do this without the need for touch points and can access this breathing anytime, anywhere.  You’ll feel the shift that you are physically and energetically supporting yourself and able to take on whatever challenge is ahead.