Ancient philosophy formed our thinking about the triune nature of the human being, who is a spirit with a soul living in a body. We often talk about these things as if they were separate parts with defined boundaries between them. We know better today. Being physically sick will have an influence on emotional well-being. We can use our mind to change the way we perceive pain. PTSD is not a sickness of the mind alone and the tools that help are not just mental exercises.
One easy way to help yourself is to use your breath for support when dealing with stress, anxiety and even full-blown panic. It is impossible to breathe slowly and deeply and be scared at the same time. The body can’t keep up anxiety when you calm your breathing and relax. Fear, like every emotion, is a chemical reaction in your body. By using breathing exercises you can stop the reaction and reverse it.
Basic breathing exercises
- Breathe out
We are infamous for telling people who are losing control to „breathe out“ instead of giving intelligent advice. People hold their breath when they get stressed. It means that their body uses all the oxygen, they try to breathe in but their lungs are still full so they can’t get new air. They start to panic because they feel like they will suffocate. No, they won’t. They just have to breathe out.
When scared it is a lot more important to breathe out than it is to breathe in. Otherwise you will end up hyperventilating. Focus on breathing out. You will breathe in automatically. You will be fine.
- Slow down your breathing. It helps to count. Breathe in through your nose counting to 5, breathe out counting to 7. Before you breathe in again, stop for a moment, then start counting again. That little break between breathing out and breathing in is increasing the calming effect. When we first tried we believed that we would die in the 2 seconds we waited. Turned out that we didn’t. Neither will you.
- Zone breathing
Imagine that you have 3 different zones in your body, a big one in your belly, a medium-sized one in your chest and a small one in the lower part of your throat. Slowly breathe in filling first the belly, then chest and throat and then slowly breathe out while you feel the air flow out in reversed order.
You can also use a visual breathing instruction to help you. We like this one. This or similar ones can be found as GIF too. A smartphone could make it available to you whenever you need it.
- Pursed lip breathing
If you are panicking and breathing too fast you need to slow down. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Purse your lips like you would do to whistle or kiss a cheek. Let the air flow out through that small hole. Don’t forget to breathe in through your nose again, not through your pursed lips. Do this for a few minutes.
Breathe in through your nose, collect the air in one cheek, like in a big balloon. Press your lips together and start pressing a small stream of air through the corner of your mouth to breathe out. The hole should be way smaller than for classic pursed lip breathing.
You will probably gasp for air before you breathed out completely. That is the nature of panic. You don’t have to get this working immediately. But you need to return to the exercise and not give up. If you do this it takes less than a minute for a full-blown panic attack to stop. Stay focussed.
- (Breathe into a plastic bag. When you are already hyperventilating this is the easiest method, but you need to have a bag with you. Breathing into your hands forming a „bag“ is not that effective. You need something airtight. Hyperventilation makes you dizzy, your arms and legs start to tingle and you might even faint because of a CO2 imbalance in your blood. Breathing „used“ air regulates it again. We think it is best to master advanced pursed lip breathing, because it doesn’t depend on your carrying a plastic bag all the time and it draws less attention. Don’t forget that breathing out is more important than breathing in.)
Please make sure to try all these so you know how to do it when it is needed.