For some reason, the internet’s solution to any anxiety-related issue always seems to be, “Try some deep breathing.”
Well, prior to seeking therapy, I never found deep breathing to be terribly helpful. And, I couldn’t possibly imagine that deep breathing would be part of any sort of “real” therapy treatment. After all, deep breathing was just some stop gap effort to help ease anxiety temporarily, right?
Deep Breathing as a Part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Lo and behold, at my second therapy appointment, my therapist instructed me to do the following:
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Any time I start obsessing and having anxious thoughts about some weird bodily sensation, I should 1) Practice some deep breathing, and 2) practice some progressive muscle relaxation.
I wanted to SMACK MY HEAD ON THE WALL.
I thought to myself, umm, gee, thanks. DEEP BREATHING! Like I hadn’t heard (and tried!) that one a million times before. This is what I’m paying a therapist for? The same advice I had read on countless internet forums and threads?
Why Deep Breathing didn’t Help my Anxiety in the Past
So, in a more diplomatic fashion, I explained to my therapist that I had tried deep breathing in the past. That sometimes it helped, but only very slightly.
But, as I continued to explain, most of the time deep breathing actually caused more anxiety. Because, whatever ache or pain I was feeling would actually be exacerbated when I breathed deeply. And most of the time too, the deep breathing did NOTHING to help my crazy fearful thoughts in my brain.
Here’s a typical conversation with myself when I was trying deep breathing after experiencing a chest pain.
“Oh god, my chest still hurts. Oh god, why is my chest hurting so badly? What if it’s a pulmonary embolism? Or a heart attack? Or an infection in my heart? I know I should just sit here and continue to breathe deeply, but the deep breaths are making my chest hurt even more! The pain actually gets worse with each deep breath. So, it’s just making my anxiety worse, not better!”
I might try to continue to force myself to deep breathe some more. But then, I’d freak out.
“WHAT ARE YOU WASTING YOUR TIME ON THIS DEEP BREATHING SHIT FOR? IT’S NOT EVEN HELPING THE PAIN. YOU MIGHT BE DYING! THIS MIGHT BE IT! GET OFF THE COUCH AND GET CLOSE TO THE PHONE IN CASE YOU HAVE TO HURRY AND CALL 911. But seriously, try to continue to deep breathe.”
As you can tell, it’s pretty difficult to maintain nice, calm, deep breathing techniques when you legitimately think you might be living the last moments of your life.
Deep Breathing is a Relaxation Technique that Requires Ongoing Practice
My therapist listened to my complaints about deep breathing. But what my therapist said next ended up being an incredible revelation to me. One that would change my entire perspective on deep breathing:
Deep breathing might not necessarily help me “in the moment.” Rather, she explained, I should think of deep breathing as a practice. She said that deep breathing is a critical step of training and rewiring my brain to have a calmer reaction to bodily sensations in the future. So, even if my pain was being exacerbated by the deep breathing, or even if I thought that the deep breathing wasn’t having a calming effect right then “in the moment,” I needed to do it anyway.
Dr. Lindo’s explanation truly changed my mindset about deep breathing. No longer was deep breathing some hippie-dippy method meant to calm me immediately. Rather, it was a long term effort. It was something that needed to be practiced, and the effects of which would be cumulative, and perhaps not noticeable for several months. Kind of like a diet. I might hate that I have to turn down a donut or piece of pie, but over the course of several months, I’d start to see the effects of my efforts.
I was finally able to make a commitment to deep breathing as a way to improve my well-being. I was using other techniques to ease my anxieties as well during therapy, so it’s hard to pinpoint just how much my ongoing deep breathing practice helped more than other techniques. But, I think that the improvements in my anxiety stemmed from the big ‘ole combination of techniques I had been trying, deep breathing included.
Do you have luck with deep breathing when you’re feeling anxious?