Why Breathing Techniques Don't Always Work

03 December, 2020
Breathing techniques are linked to anxiety relief and control. However, it seems they don't always work. Why is this so?

Breathing techniques teach you to concentrate on your breathing. This group of techniques is often used in psychological therapy as well as other areas, such as yoga and Pilates. Furthermore, breathing techniques have become well known for their use in anxiety relief. However, people with high levels of ongoing anxiety might feel that these methods don’t work for them. But why is it that breathing techniques don’t always work for some people in calming their anxiety?

A woman looking stressed.

Anxiety in human evolution

Millions of years ago, the human species was fighting for survival in a very different way from today. In order to survive, they had to hunt and collect food, as well as defend themselves from predators. When a predator approached, the individual’s anxiety and activation levels were put into motion, providing energy for the fight or flight response.

Activation of the fight or flight response involves psychophysiological changes:

  • Changes in the nervous system, increasing the response of the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Increased noradrenergic response.
  • Increased cortisol, inhibiting the immune system response and inflammatory responses.

In short, the activation of the fight or flight response in the individual meant they were less likely to be harmed by a predator. Humans still have this system, which is activated at times of danger. However, the environment has changed and, sometimes, this response isn’t as useful as it would have been in these earlier times.

The fight or flight response today

Today, you don’t face predators in the jungle every day. However, these mechanisms activate to face different kinds of threats (work, housing, economic, family, social, etc.). The sensations that lead to the activation of this system are usually unpleasant. Therefore, you tend to try and avoid them with a coping strategy.

Why breathing techniques don’t always work

Empirical evidence suggests that breathing techniques are an effective treatment for symptoms of anxiety. Other techniques include cognitive behavioral and third generation behavioral therapy. In addition, if you google “how to calm or reduce my anxiety”, the first entries results are breathing techniques.

Sometimes, you might start using breathing techniques and, despite getting some relief, your anxiety doesn’t disappear completely. You may also feel short of breath due to changing the rhythm of your breathing. And this might exaggerate certain symptoms of your anxiety.

In addition, the link between breathing techniques and anxiety control might mean that you only practice them when you’re anxious. Consequently, you come to associate your breathing techniques with anxiety. This means that, if they’re only practiced when you’re anxious and not when you’re calm, the breathing techniques might promote the onset of certain symptoms that you start to link with anxiety.

Thus, the danger of focusing your anxiety on breathing or breathing techniques risks you linking the exercise itself with anxiety. On the other hand, if the techniques were automated and simplified, you wouldn’t achieve the goal of recognizing your own symptoms.

A woman breathing in.

What to do when the breathing techniques don’t work

If breathing techniques don’t work, you might feel frustrated. It’s quite normal to try and get rid of unpleasant symptoms by focusing all your attention on them instead of thinking of other things.

Breathing techniques can work in the manner of an anchor of a ship in the middle of a storm. They hold the ship where it is, stopping the waves from tipping it over. But it isn’t easy. In fact, breathing techniques are only effective if practiced continuously and not just in anxiety-producing situations.

Techniques that focus on maintaining contact with the present moment can be another way of complementing breathing exercises.

Mindfulness tools help you stay in the present moment. They allow you to place your mind in the role of an outside observer seeking a solution to the problem. And you can play around with your attention in many ways.

  • Focusing your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. Concentrating on the movement of your abdomen with every inhalation and exhalation.
  • Observing objects and colors as if it’s the first time you’ve ever seen them.
  • Giving names, colors, shapes, textures, and temperatures to any sensations that generate discomfort.
  • Listening to music and giving your full attention to all the different musical instruments you hear, bringing them together little by little.
  • Practicing conscious eating and paying full attention to both the physical shape and taste of your food.

In short, if you think of breathing techniques as resources to manage anxiety, this can result in you actually associating them with anxiety. Thus, the goal would be to practice your breathing techniques when you’re not anxious. Furthermore, you can combine this method with other exercises in which you focus on the present moment.