Breathwork Basics and Panic Attacks

by Jessica Waters, MA, NLC, MPS, MPC

Trauma, Grief, Anxiety, Addictions and Expressive Arts Specialist

Decades ago, a physician out of Arizona made waves in the healthcare world by emphasizing one simple thing to help with stress, the major cause of chronic illness and disease in our society. Breathing. Dr. Andrew Weil is now the most famous M.D. in the nation for his integrative medicine practices that include specific nutrition, movement and breathwork. You can hear him talk about the physiological and mental impacts and how it impacts disease at this link.

Dr. Weil on Breathwork

We are called on, today in this time of crisis, to calm ourselves from the panic we feel in a quickly changing, potentially unsafe event impacting all of society in not just America but the entire World.

I, personally, have always struggled with anxiety. It would cause me to freeze initially and not breathe. Later, it would cause me to flee situations, events, people, places that evoked that fear of dread, heart racing panic, mindspinning, non breathing, anxiety. After a series of several traumatic events in my life, I developed panic disorder. There was a time about 8 years ago, where I could not leave my house due to the severeness of my panic attacks and fear that they would happen anywhere. And they did. I'm not going to say that breathwork cured all that. No. But breathwork is a strategy, a tool in my toolbox, for heading off anxiety and a panic attack when I feel it coming on or am in it. I hadn't had a panic attack for 4 years until this year. In the last 5 days, with all our vast changes, stress and lack of safety in our world I have had one everyday, especially if I travel to the store. So I take precautions before I go. I wear plastic gloves. It helps alleviate that fear that everything I touch in the store could infect me with the virus. I take my anxiety medication if I need a rescue and other methods won't work. I prep my mind with an affirmation. The one I've been using is simply, "You can do this. I got ya." I also allow myself grace and tune into my body. I always thought panic attacks came on out of nowhere for me. In reality, now that I'm more aware of myself, I can read my body signs and try to head them off at the pass. If I feel my thoughts racing or head spinning, start to notice I'm breathing shallow or holding my breath, of course feel my heart racing, if I'm irritable, have a short fuse, if my arms and hands start shaking. These are all body signals to me that say, "Wow girl. You need to stop right where you are and breathe. Move to a quiet, safe feeling place if you need to. Take a moment. You can always come back later." It's allowing yourself grace and nurturing yourself through an anxiety attack.

The biggest strategy I have is the breathwork. It has changed my life. It has changed my students lives (and I teach in a K-5 high poverty school). I see dramatic changes in behavior both in me and my students. So I'm going to walk you through how to some basic breathwork techniques. It's very simple.

  1. Sit, stand or lie down. It does not matter which. You can even do this in the middle of a grocery store. Trust me on this.

  2. Close your eyes, keep a low gaze or keep your eyes open. Whatever you are comfortable with.

  3. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4.

  4. Hold it for a count of 1 or 2.

  5. Exhale slowly for a count of 8.

  6. Pause for 1 or 2.

  7. Repeat. I do at least 5 repetitions. You can continue this for as long as you need. Try doing what my kids call “turtle speed”, super slow inhale and exhale. Start with 1 breath that way and then move to 5.

Breathe to Heal-MAx Strohm - YouTube Video Tedtalk

Use this practice as many times a day as you need. For example in my classroom, I personally would do it prior to classes coming in (and I had new classes every 30 minutes), when we met as a group on the floor to check in and get instructions, if the class was getting too loud, too rambunctious or just super excited (also if there was an explosion), at the end when we gathered to conclude the session and again, yes, again, in line as we waited for their teacher. Yes. A lot of breathing. And it worked. No only did it keep me calm during very intense, chair throwing explosive kid moments, but other students started doing it naturally, without me prompting, not only in my room at random times but in line, when they were waiting for lunch, when they were waiting in the gym, etc. And that my friends, is teaching a lifeskill.

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