A breath of fresh air — the phrase means something new, something needed, and something unexpected.
Those are also three words I would use to describe my experience with travel anxiety. It plagued me as a teenager. I passed up going on a trip to Spain in high school over nerves for the flight.
Now, I fly several times a year with no problem. Partially, I think it was just a matter of exposure. The more I did it, the less scary it became. I don’t even think about it anymore!
To some degree, my fear was due to the fact that I had pretty bad anxiety on the regular. Air travel wasn’t particularly special, but rather it served as a giant magnifying glass for all the anxieties I already had. Wonderful holidays were nearly spoiled due to the weeks of anxiety that would precede them.
So what helped me? To some degree, as I said, it was just exposure. Facing my fears. But I learned a lot about breathing exercises, and let me tell you, they made a world of difference not only when it came to travelling, but also to everyday anxiousness!
What is breathing?
Okay, maybe that’s a dumb question. But we don’t really think about it very often, since most of the time we’re totally unaware of it happening. Let’s talk about it for a sec.
Breathing is made up of two actions: inhales and exhales. The technical terms are inspiration and expiration, but that seems harder to take seriously, for some reason. Anyway.
When you inhale, all the muscles in your torso connected with breathing tighten up. Your chest and ribcage expand, and your blood circulates through your body, and specifically your lungs.
When you exhale, those muscles all relax. Air is sent out of the lungs by this motion. And that, of course, is how a breath works.
But what happens as a result of these motions is important. Incoming air brings oxygen, which enters the bloodstream through your lungs. Your outgoing breath takes carbon dioxide out with it, cleaning out the blood stream. Pretty cool!
Another cool fact: unlike digesting or your heart beat, your breathing is one automatic function that you can exert some control over. This means that we can use it as a helpful tool when we’re anxious, as opposed to having it act upon us — like a racing heartbeat or sweaty palms, which you probably can’t control.
There are basically two ways to breathe wrong. Either too much, or not at all.
The good news is, if you’re not breathing due to an anxiety attack, your body will probably self-correct. But in either case you might pass out, which is a pretty undesirable response. I’d much rather be able to get myself under control.
When we’re scared or highly anxious, the bigger problem is hyperventilation. You know — breathing too fast, and often making yourself light headed.
Here’s what happens: you’re breathing too fast, and exhaling too much. It disturbs the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide that we talked about. You need both to be balanced, and hyperventilation removes carbon dioxide from the bloodstream too quickly.
Too little carbon dioxide: blood vessels tighten up all over the body, reducing blood flow. This is why you get light headed — less blood is reaching the brain — and why you might feel weak in your extremities.
An old trick to countering this is to breathe into a paper bag (you might have seen this on Bugs Bunny, or other old-timey cartoons). This simply forces you to breathe in more carbon dioxide, putting it back into your bloodstream to try and balance you out faster. Helpful? Maybe. Embarrassing? Yep.
So now we get what happens when we’re breathing wrong. Time for some breathing techniques.
What exactly do they do? They’re basically just patterns or little routines that you can follow to help regulate your breathing. This works for two reasons:
One: it distracts your brain, forcing you to calm down by remembering specific information and steps.
Two: it calms your nervous system by forcing a healthy oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange rate.
It’s not a hoax, it’s not a strange new-age invention. It’s just an exercise that optimizes a particular bodily function that we, luckily, have control over.
So enough background information. Here are a couple techniques you can try.
This method is really simple, and easy to remember. Inhale slowly as you count to seven, and then exhale for a count of seven. You can play around with how long your counts are — whether it’s a full second, or longer, or less.
This forces deep, measured breaths and equal exhales. It’s a little bit similar to the “4-7-8” method to help you fall asleep, in case you’ve ever tried that. The idea is the same — that it calms your nervous system and forces you to relax. But the point here is just to calm your anxiety, not to put you to sleep (although I definitely recommend sleeping through plane rides if you can).
As an aside, I like the “4-7-8” method for anytime other than during a moment of high anxiety. In those moments, having to hold my breath just makes me tremendously unhappy. Just a thought — but it might work for you!
This is also known as deep breathing, which is a less cool name. This technique focuses on all the muscles that are involved in breathing — remember how they contract on the inhale, and relax on the exhale?
Diaphragmatic breathing is sort of the ideal state for mammals. It’s the way we breathe when we’re most relaxed. So we can mimic that by focusing on the diaphragm, a muscle located right below the lungs — sort of at the bottom of the ribcage, on your front.
To do this, focus on the tensing and relaxing of this muscle with each inhale and exhale. It’s meant to be exaggerated, since you’re doing in consciously. It might take some practice to figure out a rhythm.
For extra points, you can combine this with a 7-count or another number that works for you. But don’t make it too low, or you’re just shallow breathing…a.k.a. hyperventilating.
Nose & Mouth Breathing
Most people, you will find, have a bigger mouth than nostrils. Ergo, breathing through the mouth intakes more air than breathing through the nose.
So how can we use this fact to help balance out our breath? Think about the mouth and the nose like two different valves of water. One has a large stream, the other has a small stream. The water in this metaphor is oxygen, of course. And both also act like exhaust pipes, too: they can send out a lot, or a little, bit of air on each exhale.
Oxygen is brought into the body on the inhale. Oxygen is absorbed on the exhale. Carbon dioxide is expelled on the exhale.
Knowing these rules, we can use the different “valves” and “exhaust pipes” to control the process.
When you need a lot of oxygen — say, if you’re running — then breathing through the mouth is optimal. It injects the most oxygen into your bloodstream, and removes the most carbon dioxide. Your breathing will also be quicker when running, speeding up this process.
Breathing through the nose, on the other hand, means that a smaller amount of oxygen enters the lungs, but more gets into the bloodstream because it takes so much longer to exhale.
You might find that a combination of the two works best for you — breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth, for instance. The important thing is to be consistent, and not to panic about switching up patterns too much.
Another interesting fact: breathing in through the nose allows your body to filter the air better, and to regulate the temperature before it reaches the lungs!
There are so many techniques and tools for managing anxiety out there, and a quick online search can yield thousands of suggestions for helping with travel anxiety. I think that the best tool is one that’s already built in, and one that your body already wants you to use. So go forth, and breathe easier on your next adventure!