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Easing Anxiety Naturally

Discharging Tension / Breath Work

By JoAnn Revak, Guest Contributor

Updated July 10, 2007

If you're experiencing anxiety, you're not alone. In fact, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America says that anxiety is now the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in the country (Stukin, 2003). There are many reasons to feel anxious these days: the economy, unemployment, and global tensions are just a few.

Feeling anxious often means a racing pulse, sweating, and rapid, shallow breathing. What do you do to alleviate feelings of anxiety? What's the best treatment for anxiety? While prescription medication is often useful, and sometimes essential, it's not the only treatment. Therapy is often effective, but sometimes the cost of therapy is prohibitive.

Breath work is an effective alternative technique that can be used whether you are taking anti-anxiety medications or not. Most of us already know -- even if we don't realize it -- the importance of breathing when we feel anxious. We often advise a friend who's upset to stop for a moment and "take a couple of deep breaths."

One of the most interesting things about breathing is its dual nature: it's something that happens automatically, but at the same time, it's something that one can control. It is both helpful and useful to pay attention to your breath and how you breathe. Start slowly and simply. You don't want to increase your anxiety by worrying if you're doing a breath work exercise properly!

I find it helpful to take a time out before doing any breath work; I've found that if I "discharge" some of my anxious physical energy it's easier for me to focus on my breath. I've tried the following techniques:

  • Go to your bedroom and close the door. Pile a couple of pillows on the edge of the bed and then pound the pillows with your fists. You might want to yell while doing this, but only if yelling won't disturb or upset anyone else.

  • Do some jumping jacks, jump rope, or march in place for a few minutes.

  • Dance to music. NOTE: This works best when no one else is around. You can turn up the music a bit and you don't have to worry about what you might look like while dancing around your living room!

  • Scrub your bathtub and/or your kitchen floor. (This technique provides the added benefit of getting some housework done!)

  • Go for a walk around the block.
All of these activities will help release muscular tension; they also tend to lead naturally to deeper breathing - you need oxygen to do these things, and your breathing will deepen to draw in more oxygen.

Now you're ready to try some breath work. Here's a good place to start:

  1. Find a place where it's quiet.

  2. Sit in a straight back chair with both feet on the floor, hands on your thighs. Or lie down on the floor on your back with arms by your side, palms up, and your legs slightly separated and relaxed. Relax your jaw and gently close your eyes.

  3. Take a couple of deep breaths. Sigh as you exhale. You might want to stretch your arms a couple of times as you inhale and exhale. Listen to the sound of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Notice your abdomen rising and falling as you breathe in and out.

  4. Begin by doing this for a couple of minutes. Then gradually increase by adding a couple of minutes. No rush.
This practice is something you can do from time to time during the day, even while you're at work or standing in line at the bank. Pause for a moment, close your eyes, and listen to the sound of your breath.

What happens? Maybe you'll notice that you were holding your breath and you hadn't noticed that before. Maybe you'll notice, as you're listening to your breath and feeling your abdomen rising and falling, that your breath is gradually slowing down and deepening.

There's no need to push yourself or judge yourself. The idea is simply to be quiet and notice how you're breathing at that moment.

DISCLAIMER: This information is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a physician. The reader should consult a physician before starting any health or exercise program. Do not ignore any physical distress that occurs during or after exercise since it may indicate a health problem which requires the attention of a physician or other health care professional.
Stukin, Stacie. "The Anti-Drug for Anxiety." Yoga Journal. March/April 2003.

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