Dr Richard Schweizer Blog - November 2021

Cadence breathing for anxiety


If you have been following One Door blogs for some time, you will know that I have written about the mental health benefits of meditation. Today I would like to talk about one type of meditation – cadence breathing.

Unfortunately I suffer episodic anxiety. It usually comes on when there has been a piling up of anxiety-inducing events, such as meetings, social groups or over-stimulation from computer games. Once it hits, it usually stays around for a while; sometimes several hours. There are a few things I can do to prevent these “anxiety spikes”. Things like guided meditation, sleeping well, exercise and eating well all help. (For meditation, I use "Insight Timer" which I find to be excellent, however there are other alternatives available that also support meditation). There are also specific triggers, which can include strenuous exercise in the afternoon. It is, for me, an ongoing project of learning to manage my anxiety.

However, there is one thing that has seemed to work for me better than all the others at reducing the severity and frequency of anxiety spikes. This is cadence breathing.

Cadence breathing involves a few factors. At the heart is mindfulness and control of the breath. Mindfulness means focusing one’s concentration on the breath – what it feels like, its temperature, its texture, its depth, how it feels at the nostrils, mouth, chest and belly. Control means that we are taking deliberate breaths, rather than leaving our breath to find its natural rhythm. This aspect of control is vital. The essence of cadence breathing is controlling one’s breath, and spending more time on the out breath and/or holding one’s breath for longer than the time spent on the in breath. So, for example, I use a cadence of a four second breath in and a six second breath out. I then repeat this for as long as needed. Cadence breathing can also take the form of “four square” breathing – four second in breath, four seconds hold, four seconds out breath, four seconds hold, and repeat. The breaths are deep; they are called “belly breaths” because they involve movement of the diaphragm and extension of the belly. Generally I find the breathing exercise has some effect within a few minutes.

I greatly recommend this practice. It has allowed me to manage my anxiety more effectively than other techniques.

You may want to learn more about cadence breathing. The reason for its effectiveness is that it actives the “parasympathetic nervous system”. This is what is known as the “rest and digest” response. It means being calm and relaxed, including relaxation of the digestive system. The opposite of the parasympathetic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the “fight or flight” response. It is characterised by heightened arousal, tension, suspension of the digestive system and irritability. I understand my own anxiety to be a “fight or flight” response in my nervous system.

This may all sound fabulous. A way out of anxiety! However, I must sound a caution. Everybody experiences anxiety differently, and will respond to triggers and calming techniques individually. What works for me may not work for you. I would also observe that I have been practicing guided breath control meditation for some years, so cadence breathing comes naturally to me. If you have not meditated before it may take you some time to get used to it. For beginners, breath meditation may be difficult or frustrating. I cannot promise you that sticking with it will solve your problems. However, there is good evidence that mindfulness and meditation can help with anxiety (among other emotional and mental phenomena), and I recommend giving it a try for at least a few weeks. Indeed, I have found through my smartphone meditation app a cadence breathing meditation that only takes seven minutes.

Happy meditating!

Dr. Richard Schweizer, Policy Officer at One Door Mental Health richard.schweizer@onedoor.org.au.  

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 Dr Richard Schweizer

Dr Richard Schweizer