The Importance of Breathing in Dealing with Anxiety

6 Aug

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton

 

The Importance of Breathing in Dealing with Anxiety

 

Got a panic stricken, hyperventilating youngster in front of you? One basic first aid  measure will involve convincing the child to take calm, deep relaxing breaths.  Perhaps you will ask them to blow into a paper bag and fill it up, or just look into your eyes and copy-cat your breathing or just imagine that they are blowing bubbles. This calm, deep belly breathing in which you can see the belly or diaphragm move, helps counteract the overactive alarm system that characterizes many anxious children. It also helps to get them physically active to burn off all that anxious energy.

 

But the benefits of practicing this type of belly breathing go beyond temporary first aid. When we breathe, there is a difference in our heart rate between inhaling and exhaling. Our heart rates increase when we breathe in and slow down when we breathe out. This is known as heart rate variability and it correlates with anxiety. About 10-15% of children are biologically more on the shy and anxious side, and as psychologist Jerome Kagan discovered, these children have lower heart rate variability than their less anxious peers. Fortunately, practicing calm breathing can do wonders. In one study, on the power of breathing, adults were given artificial blister wounds on their arms, one group was taught breathing skills and the control group was left alone. The group that was taught breathing skills found that their blister wounds healed much more quickly than those of  the control group. In other words, breathing helps support the body’s natural capacity to heal itself. We know that the emergency response system, the sympathetic nervous system, the part involved in the fight or flight responses, gets a “regular exercise” from all the anxious things your child does. However, the calming and repairing system has been typically sitting on the sidelines and does not have a chance to get into the ball game. Engaging in calm breathing actually helps build up the muscles in the calming and repairing system, or the parasympathetic system. As a result, the child has some calm down “muscles” that can help tame the overactive alarm “muscles” or help set the foundation so that the child can access his/her smart brain.

 

There are many child friendly ways to teach calm breathing and here are some to get you started.

  1. “Make Lemonade”. Get some newspaper and crumple it up. Put one newspaper ball in your hand. Now pretend the ball is a lemon, and squeeze out as much lemon juice as possible. Do one hand at a time, squeeze as hard as possible, and then relax.
  2. Pretend you are blowing out birthday candles
  3. In more tense situations, ask the child to look into your eyes and copy-cat your breathing.
  4.   http://youtu.be/OaVB7j4BJn    This Ytube video also contains some nice suggestions for children.
  5. Consider also the following books: Lori Lite A Boy and a Bear: The Children’s Relaxation Book, Michael Chissick and Sarah Peacock Frog’s Breathtaking Speech: How Children (and Frogs) Can Use the Breath to Deal with Anxiety, Anger and Tension.

 

Anxious children often want instant results and can be quick to dismiss suggestions. Parental modeling of calm breathing helps as well as  incorporating it into the bedtime routine or other transitional moments. It is a skill that needs to be practiced in nonanxious moments for it to have a chance to be helpful in more high intensity situations.

 

copyright@Edward H. Plimpton 2014

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