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Anxiety & Rhythmic Breathing: How being Stressed actually makes you Suffocate

Joseph V. Zeidan, M.S, Mental Health Professional, Author

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This article provides a comprehensive understanding to the least noticed symptom of anxiety in which everyone struggling with this mental health challenge is going through: rhythmic breaking of breathing leading to suffocation during sleep, and leading to physical agitation and being startled which breaks rhythmic sleep.

This is based on 84 cases of insomnia treated in the Middle East and North Africa being treated due to the crippling anxiety they have been facing. The spectrum of anxiety was divided between generalized, post-traumatic, and agoraphobia.

Lastly, the article provides the most effective techniques to stabilize rhythmic breathing under the anxiety spectrum to develop self-control.


Introduction

What is anxiety? The amount of education present in individuals today of this subject is actually high due to the easy access to knowledge via the internet. However, there are plenty of gaps of knowledge that hopefully this article will fill some of it.

To start with, the anxiety spectrum according to the DSM 5 and ICD 10 can vary between generalized anxiety, phobias, and PTSD. The symptoms are similar with significant differences between them. But they all have one thing in common: The immense impact they have on our immune system and physical rhythmic functions specific to breathing.


The human body has an automatic function of breathing that needs little to no focus to keep doing it or else human beings would have been extinct a long time ago. With the rise of the COVID pandemic, breathing has become more and more of a challenge to people suffering from this virus, especially since the virus targets the lungs. Anxiety works in a similar way but can render the body weak in all areas, this includes: metabolism, immune dysfunctions, breathing problems etc.


Anxiety makes you suffocate

Have you ever woken up startled in your sleep? According to the clients I have treated, almost all of them have reported lack of sleep or waking up startled and sweating. After conducting a breathing exercise and mindfulness meditations to test the mind’s scattered thoughts, my clients had the exact same reaction every time they try to be mindful.


The exercise is designed in an hour glass form. The first step is to close your eyes and open your awareness to the sounds around you, while focusing mainly on the nature of the sound and less on labeling the sound itself. For example, besides labeling the sound of a car as the car itself, rather you need to focus on the rhythm of the sound, how far it is or close, how deep it is etc. The second step of the exercise is to switch your awareness away from the sounds around you and focus on your normal breathing. As you inhale and exhale through your nose, try as much as possible to anchor yourself with the rhythm of the normal breath while understanding that it is normal to drift off to different ideas. Being aware of the breath makes us understand that when we spiral into thoughts, bringing ourselves back to the rhythm anchors us to the present. The last step of the exercise is now to open up to all thought patterns that come while being aware of the breath. The moment any scenarios or thoughts start to become overwhelming, the breath is the anchor and we go back to it to be present and in control. Each step of the exercise takes 1 minute, with a total of 3 minutes in total and repeated daily and in session.


Monitoring clients as they are doing this exercise for the first time made me realize something incredibly interesting and disturbing at the same time. When clients reach the 3rd phase of the exercise and immerse themselves in these thoughts, I have noticed that they would suddenly take a deep breath as if they are suffocating and they break the exercise to open their eyes.


This was also connected to being startled in their sleep due to their anxiety. Therefore, it is apparent that anxiety had a direct impact to the rhythmic breathing and causes clients to suffocate by lengthening their exhale as their mind wanders through a plethora of thoughts and emotions.


Taking back control of your breathing

The hour glass technique in mindfulness is highly effective in establishing a stable anchor, however it is not for everyone. From my professional perspective, people who suffer from a form of anxiety tend to make things worse when they start a mindfulness exercise. The key has been to ease the mind through talking therapy (specifically through CBT) and then integrating mindfulness exercises to reinforce the progress and control over anxiety.


When insomnia is present as a symptom of anxiety, the most important factor to help in sleep is breathing, specifically taking control over the rhythm while being unconscious. The most efficient way to provide a form of control over thoughts, especially if it is related to a form of trauma, is the therapeutic technique called Eye movements desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.

This technique, along with CBT, and integrating breathing exercises & mindfulness exercises like the hour glass technique, proves to be highly efficient and rapid and regaining control over rhythmic breathing and anxiety.


In simple terms, CBT is done first to tackle cognitive dysfunctions and provide objective reasoning as a form of cognitive control, while EMDR is inserted after that cognitive control as a means to stabilize the progress via conquering hard memories and overcoming them, and mindfulness plays the role of anchoring yourself through your breathing and therefore treating the physical symptoms of anxiety.

That is a 4-month process that has proven high efficiency in treatment.


Conclusion

The anxiety spectrum has cause individuals to suffocate in their sleep and wake up startled. It has caused a rupture in rhythmic sleep, and most importantly, in rhythmic breathing which the essence of keeping a human being alive. By having immense scattered thoughts and overthinking, the mental pressure causes a lengthy exhalation until it causes suffocation.


This is treated by integrating cognitive structure through CBT techniques, overcoming traumatic incidents through EMDR techniques, and integrating mindfulness breathing exercises to re-anchor the mind and control breathing.

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