Breathing and Relaxation

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Breathing and Relaxation Retraining

You may have noticed that when you are under a lot of stress or anxiety, your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. This can sometimes lead to shortness of breath and even dizziness, a normal component of the fight/or/flight response.

Unlike other changes that occur during the fight/or/flight response, like the release of adrenalin, changes in heart rate, etc., breathing is under our own control. In fact, breathing is one of the few systems in the body that is both involuntarily and voluntarily. We can sleep at night and breathe at the same time without forcing it, and we can hold our breath or blow a candle when we want.

So, when the fight/or/flight response instigates speeded/up breathing through the involuntary system, you can regain control of your breath by using a voluntary override.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

When the fight-or-flight response is turned on, most of our breathing comes from the intercostals, not the diaphragm. This is because our body is trying to saturate itself with oxygen for the muscles, to prepare the body to escape or fight. Fast, shallow breathing gets the oxygen in quickly and forces out a lot of carbon dioxide.

The diaphragmatic breathing exercise describes a “breathing retraining” technique that can help the symptoms caused by overbreathing. It involves breathing slowly, using your diaphragm rather than your intercostal muscles.

There is also a meditational component that will help you stay focused on the exercise. Note that there are different approaches to breathing retraining – this is just one variation. You may have already learned a slightly different approach during a yoga class, singing lessons or elsewhere.

Word of caution

Although it can be a useful strategy for dealing with general anxiety, worry, tension, and stress, it should NOT be used as an avoidance strategy. If you are afraid of feeling panicky and breathless, for example, do not tell yourself, “Oh, no… I am having a panic attack… I better slow down my breathing so I do not faint and drop dead!” This just turns breathing retraining into a safety behavior that will help your anxiety to thrive.

If you find that you are doing the breathing exercises out of fear of what might happen if you do not do them, then don’t do them! But, obviously, it is perfectly appropriate to use them to deal with general anxiety, like when you are surrounded by a lot of noise and you feel nervous, so you just want to feel a bit better.


You will find two voice notes below.

The first one is the Full body progressive muscle relaxation.

The second one is the Diaphragmatic breathing exercise.

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