Breathing techniques to calm yourself down if you're panicking in self-isolation

If you’re starting to go stir-crazy in self-isolation, don’t worry – you’re not the only one and it’s a completely normal feeling.

But just because it’s normal, it doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.

If these feelings build up, they might also lead to anxiety or panic attacks.

If you’ve never had a panic attack before, this can be very scary; symptoms include a racing heartbeat, sweating, shaky limbs, shortness of breath (or hyperventilation), feeling faint or nauseous and a feeling of dread or fear that you’re going to die.

You might experience some of these symptoms, only one of them or others.

A panic attack can last just a few minutes or even up to 20 minutes. You might have them frequently or you might only have them during highly stressful situations (like a pandemic, for instance).

People have different coping mechanism for dealing with panic attacks, but a common way to calm yourself down when you feel stressed or as if panic is bubbling up in your mind, is to meditate – or, use simple breathing exercises to release a flow of nitric oxide in your body and calm your heart rate.

According to the American Institute of Stress, taking a deep breath (abdominal breathing) can 20-30 minutes per day can reduce anxiety and stress – so it’s not just useful when a panic attack happens but learning various breathing techniques can be beneficial as a preventative method, too.

How to breathe to calm yourself down

We talk to Helena Bourdillon, a freediver and breath trainer who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts in the past.

Now, she helps people by teaching them breathing techniques to improve their physical and mental health.

Before we go on, note that these breathing techniques will not cure coronavirus, but may help you if you’re feeling anxious about the state of the world right now.

‘When we use our breath consciously and calmly our bodies respond very favourably,’ says

‘Physically we can improve or alleviate many diseases and illnesses. 

‘Mentally, we are kept in the present moment rather than worrying about the past or fearing the future making conscious breathing an indispensable tool in the positive mental health and wellbeing toolbox.’

So, how should you breathe?

  • Breathe in and out through your nose.
  • Sit upright (or lean back slightly). This helps you draw the air down into the lower part of your lungs which will help with the feelings of wellbeing.
  • Make your exhale longer than your inhale to stimulate the ‘rest and digest’ side of your nervous system. Gently extend the exhale as you feel yourself calming and relaxing.

‘Count the length of your inhale and then double that for the exhale (eg inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of six),’ Helena adds.

‘Make sure you are not causing any stress by counting too slowly at the beginning.  As you feel your body relaxing, slow down pace of the counting.’

A very important aspect of breathing calmly is to, as Helena has explained, breathe through your nose and there’s a reason for it.

‘Our noses and sinuses take up around 30% of the space in our skulls in which we filter, warm, moisten the air we breathe in as well as producing nitric oxide (a potent antiviral that helps defend us against air-born pathogens),’ she says.

‘All of this means that when the air gets into our lungs it is in the best condition for us to absorb the oxygen from it to use in our bodies. 

‘If we breathe through our mouths, we get none of these benefits.’

The environment you’re in matters, too.

While you can sit anywhere while doing this exercise, choose a space (in your home) where you feel most comfortable, but don’t lie down.

Helena says: ‘You can sit anywhere as long as you are not slumped over because that makes it almost impossible to draw the air down into the lowest part of the lungs which will help you to relax.

‘Make sure your shoulders are back and if you can’t relax while sitting up straight, put a cushion behind your back and lean back a little bit until you are comfortable.’

And adjust the temperature in the home if you can or have a blanket at hand.

‘Both stress and anxiety increase the bodies metabolism and the byproduct of that is heat but they can also cause you to feel cold or chilly because of the restricted blood flow to the skin due to constriction of blood vessels caused by the stress response,’ adds Helena.

Finally, wear loose clothing that doesn’t restrict your waist, to ensure your diaphragm has full range of movement.

If you find yourself continuously having panic attacks or need someone to talk to, contact your GP or use a mental health service like Mind or Samaritans.

Don’t ignore the panic attacks – ask for help, if you need it.

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