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Feeling anxious? The way you breathe could be adding to it

By | Kira M. Newman |

Scrolling social media, amid frantic posts about politics and COVID-19 cases, you may have come across a friend or two reminding everyone to “just breathe.”

But can just breathing really make a difference?

In his new book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, journalist James Nestor argues that modern humans have become pretty bad at this most basic act of living. We breathe through our mouths and into our chests, and we do it way too fast. There’s even a phenomenon called “email apnea,” where multitasking office workers breathe irregularly and shallowly — or even hold their breath — for half a minute or more while glued to their devices.

Besides all the worrisome health problems this may cause, which Nestor details in his book, our ineptitude at breathing may have another big consequence — contributing to our anxiety and other mental health problems.

“The rate and depth we breathe at is a huge determinant of our mental state,” says Elissa Epel, a professor at UC San Francisco.

Researchers like Epel are exploring how using breathing techniques — some new, some ancient — can help people stave off anxiety. What they’re discovering is that breathing could be an overlooked key to finding more calm and peace.

How breathing can calm us

We often try to tame anxiety by changing our thoughts — questioning the worst-case scenarios in our heads, interrupting rumination with some kind of distraction or going to therapy. But breathing offers a different approach, bypassing the complexities of the mind and targeting the body directly. Instead of trying to think yourself out of feeling anxious, you can do something concrete — breathe slow or fast, in a particular rhythm, or through one nostril — and sometimes find immediate relief.

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