When we are afraid or anxious, our muscle tension increases and we breathe harder and faster. Increasing muscle tension makes us feel tense, causes muscle aches and pains, and leaves some people feeling exhausted. Breathing fast can make you frightened, light-headed and dizzy, increasing your belief something bad is going to happen. Muscle relaxation can be particularly helpful when anxiety causes muscle tension. And learning to regain control of your breathing gives you a simple tool to calm yourself and relax when you feel panicky.
We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. To run efficiently, our bodies need a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. We maintain this balance through how fast and how deeply we breathe. When we are anxious, we take in more air than our body needs – we over-breathe, or hyperventilate. The body responds with chemical changes that produce symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, confusion, breathlessness, blurred vision, increased heart rate, numbness and tingling in our hands and feet, cold clammy hands and muscle stiffness.
We can use a calming breathing technique to overcome this:
Continued over-breathing can leave you feeling exhausted or on edge. This makes it more likely that you’ll respond to stressful situations with extreme anxiety and panic. Gaining control over your breathing involves both slowing your breathing rate and changing your breathing style.
- Ensure you’re sitting or lying comfortably and have uninterrupted time to relax.
- Take a breath in for four seconds (through your nose if possible).
- Hold the breath for two seconds.
- Release the breath, taking six seconds (through your nose if possible), then pause slightly before breathing in again.
- Repeat this several times, increasing the length of the exercise as you become more comfortable.
When you start, it may be difficult to slow your breathing down to this rate. If so, start with a rate of in for three, hold for one, breathe out for four. When doing this, make sure you’re “stomach breathing” rather than “chest breathing”. Check this by placing one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. The hand on your stomach should rise when you breathe in. Try to practise at least once a day, at a time when you can relax, relatively free from distraction. Try to set aside some time each day. This technique can slow your breathing and reduce your general anxiety. It can even help to reduce your anxiety when you’re in an anxious situation.
Many people who over-breathe do not realise that they are doing so. You may not realise that frequent sighing, or yawning, or audible intakes of air before speech, are all signs that you are over-breathing. You can do the following simple questionnaire to test how much you are over-breathing. If your score is high you are likely to benefit from help with improving your breathing techniques.
Muscle tension is commonly associated with stress, anxiety and fear as part of a process that helps our bodies prepare for potentially dangerous situations. Even though some of those situations may not actually be dangerous, our bodies respond in the same way. Sometimes we don’t even notice how our muscles become tense.
Progressive muscle relaxation helps us learn to relax our muscles:
- Set aside a time and place for relaxation, give yourself permission to relax.
- Before you start, slow your breathing as described in Calming breathing techniques for a few minutes.
- Tense the muscle groups in the sequence described below. Make sure you can feel the tension, but not so much that it’s painful. Keep the muscle tensed for around five seconds. Breathe in as you tense and breathe out as you relax.
- Relax the muscles and keep them relaxed for around 10 seconds. It may be helpful to say something like “Relax” as you relax the muscle.
- When you’ve finished, stay seated for a few moments as you become alert.
Relaxation sequence :
- Right hand and forearm. Make a fist with your right hand.
- Right upper arm. Bring your right forearm up to your shoulder to “make a muscle”.
- Left hand and forearm.
- Left upper arm.
- Forehead. Raise your eyebrows as high as they will go, as though you were surprised by something.
- Eyes and cheeks. Squeeze your eyes tightly shut.
- Mouth and jaw. Open your mouth as wide as you can, as you might when you’re yawning.
- Neck. Be careful as you tense these muscles. Face forward and pull your head back slowly, as though you’re looking up to the ceiling.
- Shoulders. Tense the muscles in your shoulders as you bring your shoulders up towards your ears.
- Shoulder blades and back. Push your shoulder blades back, trying to almost touch them together, so that your chest is pushed forward.
- Chest and stomach. Breathe in deeply, filling your lungs and chest with air.
- Hips and buttocks. Squeeze your buttock muscles.
- Right upper leg. Tighten your right thigh.
- Right lower leg. Pull your toes towards you to stretch the calf muscle. Do this slowly and carefully to avoid cramps.
- Right foot. Curl your toes downwards.
- Left upper leg. Repeat as for right upper leg.
- Left lower leg. Repeat as for right lower leg.
- Left foot. Repeat as for right foot.
Repeat the whole process three to four times.
Through practice you can become more aware of your muscles, how they respond with tension, and how you can relax them. Training your body to respond differently to stress is like any training – practising consistently is the key. Then, when you start to feel anxious, you can progressively tense and relax your muscles to help calm yourself.