Neurodivergent conditions often come with an unwanted dose of anxiety on the side. This anxiety can be innate (for example, being born with structural and chemical differences in the brain), or influenced by a person’s environment (such as medication side-effects or simply dealing with the day-to-day effects of our conditions.
A healthy dose of anxiety can be a good thing; it alerts us to danger and helps to improve our life performance. However, more intrusive anxiety can be detrimental and wreak havoc on a person’s wellbeing. One important way to reduce anxiety is to lower your stress levels through breathing techniques.
Breathing is an autonomic process–you don’t have to think about it consciously, and you still breathe. However, it’s unique as an autonomic process, because you can control it if you want to.
When you start to control your breath, by focusing on it and slowing it down, something incredible happens within your body. It starts to regulate all the other autonomic processes that have gone into overdrive as a result of the stress. It’s that simple. Control your breath, and the rest will take care of itself.
I use this solution whenever I need it–for me, that’s before I present to an audience, before I’m being interviewed and at night in bed to help me get to sleep. It’s incredibly relaxing. It hasn’t let me down. Oh, and it also works, for me, to get rid of hiccups.
Researchers have found that slowing down your breathing can:
Improve your mood and ease depressive symptoms
Reduce anger, pain, sweating, muscle tension and temperature
Improve asthma, oxygen saturation and heart rate variability
Lower blood pressure
Leaving you calmer, healthier and happier.
SLOW BREATHING EXERCISE
Most people breathe on average around twelve to eighteen breaths per minute. When we are stressed, this can increase to about twenty to forty-five breaths per minute. I slow my breathing down to four breaths per minute, to prevent or to reduce stress. It feels great.
While there are many breathing exercises, I’m going to teach you my technique–the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. I use this technique because it also helps strengthen vocal power–that’s a whole new blog post, but in a nutshell, it helps you to avoid running out of air mid-sentence.
Don’t go lower than four breaths per minute as it can have adverse effects. Five or six breaths per minute are also very effective. At first, it may feel like a challenge if you aren’t used to slow breathing. If you find it too much of a challenge, or if you have asthma, try breathing slowly but at a rate that works for you.
I usually set aside ten minutes for this before a speaking gig. Often, I do it on the train, and then as I get off, I feel like I’m floating on a bed of calm. Life feels wonderful, even though I’m about to go into a situation, which otherwise, would feel stressful. Some people take drugs, I breathe.
I try to maintain slower than normal breathing once I’m there, without counting the pace. If I find my stress levels start to increase, which sometimes happens when I’m early and have to wait around, I take myself to the bathroom to breathe (and power-pose).
If you only have two minutes to spare, breathe like this and you’ll still gain the benefits.
The breathing technique and patterns are explained below.
How to Breathe Properly–Breathing from the Abdomen
Get comfortable, relax your shoulders, straighten your back and make sure your head is aligned, over your body. Make sure your arms aren’t across your body. All this will open your airways and help you to breathe correctly.
Breathe from your abdomen instead of your chest. With abdominal breathing, the diaphragm extends to fill the entire lung capacity for efficient respiration. We breathe from the abdomen while we sleep, and babies breathe this way too–it’s the correct way to breathe. Chest breathing is what most adults do while they are awake. However, it’s a bad habit and is associated with anxiety. It also creates tension in the shoulders and neck.
Try this–take a deep breath in and then exhale. Did your shoulders rise and fall? If they did, you’re breathing from the chest. Try to get into the habit of abdominal breathing instead. You may find it easier to practise (initially) lying down.
Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest, to ensure your chest isn’t moving, but your abdomen is. As you inhale, feel your abdomen expand like a balloon as your diaphragm pushes it outwards. As you exhale, feel your abdomen slowly sink back towards your body. Once you think you’re breathing from the abdomen, you can begin.
The Slow Breathing Exercises
I’ve created some follow-along animations (below) of the breathing exercises so you can follow the pace without counting. I prefer to follow the animations because it also relaxes my eyes, as I allow my gaze to lose focus–this is my meditation. Of course, if I’m out and about, I usually just count the pace (see pattern below).
FOUR BREATHS PER MINUTE
If the four breaths per minute breathing exercise is too much of a challenge (it should feel somewhat challenging initially), if you have asthma or other breathing issues*, scroll down and try the five or six breaths per minute exercises instead.
*Check with your doctor before trying any of these breathing exercises.
Use the time that you have, if it’s only two minutes, take two minutes. The videos last for ten minutes–if you have ten, breathe for ten.
Always breathe in through your nose. In this exercise breathe out through pursed lips.
Straighten your posture, get comfortable and feel your abdomen rise as you breathe in, and lower as you breathe out.
There is no sound on these videos, feel free to add music or sounds that are soothing to you.