For the Mind, Body, and Gut

Research has found associations between anxiety or depression and the development of some gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and related symptoms. Many symptoms of anxiety and stress are due to the way an individual breathes. There is a huge difference between a deep breath and a big breath. Most people with anxiety, fear, and panic tend to take big, restricted, effortful breaths rather than deep, satisfying, relaxing breaths. As a result, they suffer from upper chest breathing (disordered breathing), a dysfunctional way of breathing in which you breathe too fast, too shallow, and too high in the chest. Disordered breathing leads to a low-grade habit of hyperventilation, which provokes and maintains symptoms of anxiety by keeping the body tense and the heart racing.

While looking in the mirror as you take in a deep breath, watch to see if your upper chest and torso move up. Do your shoulders lift and your abdominal area contract as you inhale? Do your shoulders drop on the exhale? If this happens, then you have witnessed disordered breathing.

If you struggle to take a deep, satisfying breath in, find it hard to catch your breath at times, or experience attacks of breathlessness (even at rest), then you should work on improving your breathing patterns. Some of the symptoms of disordered breathing include:

  • dizziness
  • light headedness
  • poor concentration
  • erratic heartbeats
  • pounding heart
  • chest pains
  • tingling, prickling, or pins and needles in the hands, feet, and lips
  • regular sighs or sniffing
  • repeated throat clearing
  • tension in the neck, shoulder, and upper back
  • sleep disturbances

Healthy breathing resembles that of a newborn baby. When you inhale, the abdominal area inflates and the shoulders barely move. If you were to place one hand on your belly and one hand on your upper chest, you would feel your belly move more than your upper chest.

Rapid upper chest breathing is a normal response to a sudden threat and it is one of the reactions of the fight or flight response, which is an instinctive, adaptive internal response to danger. In some people with anxiety and stress, this upper chest breathing has become an ongoing pattern. They breathe as if they are in imminent danger or as if something bad is going to happen at any moment. This keeps the body in a state of hyper-arousal or hyper-vigilance. Studies show that this type of constant stress or anxiety has a negative effect on the functioning of the GI tract.

For some people, this way of breathing could have started early on in life, especially if they grew up in an environment that was unpredictable, volatile, and chaotic, or filled with conflict or criticism. Other individuals report a distinct change in their breathing pattern after a surgery, car accident, or significant loss. Daily negative thought patterns of worry, nervousness, and fear, such as, “What if I fail? What if they don’t like me? I should…, I could…, I must…,” all contribute to sustain disordered breathing.

Although events from the past originally created this habit and current fearful thoughts might exacerbate it, you must change your body’s breathing habit in order to experience relief from anxiety and discover a sense of calmness. You might do this with the help of a therapist who works with the breath, by practicing specific breathing exercises and relaxation techniques, or by getting regular exercise at a level that is right for you.

While research is ongoing into the relationship between anxiety and GI conditions, stress management is an important and recognized component of GI health and treatment. If detrimental breathing patterns are so powerful that they can produce a range of negative symptoms, then it is reasonable to believe that healthy breathing patterns can produce positive experiences. Learning how to re-establish proper breathing habits can help to calm your mind, relieve anxiety symptoms, and possibly thwart or better manage a GI disease or disorder.

Claire Maisonneuve, Registered Clinical Counsellor
Director, Alpine Anxiety & Stress Relief Clinic
First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 185 – 2013