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Deep Breathing for Anxiety

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I know it sounds pretty lightweight, but deep breathing is a really powerful tool that you can use every day to help combat your anxiety. And there really is a lot of science behind it if you understand what’s going on. But to understand what deep breathing does, you first have to understand what anxiety does to your body.

Anxiety in the Body

Anxiety has a number of physical symptoms that you are probably aware of such as:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Faster breathing, shortness of breath

  • Narrowed vision

  • Stomachache, upset stomach

  • Headache

  • Sweating

  • Shaking, trembling

  • Muscle tension

  • Increased body temperature

These symptoms are all caused by the “fight or flight” response (or as it’s called by some, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response).

What is the “Fight or Flight” Response

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This is a biological response brought on as a reaction to a perceived threat. It is a survival response that happens almost instantly when we are confronted by something dangerous that has been with us for many, many generations.

The first thing that happens is our body is flooded with hormones such as osteocalcin (a new finding! This particular hormone is produced in the bones), cortisol (the stress hormone), adrenaline, and norepinephrine. A number of biological reactions then occur to prepare you to either fight the threat, to run away from it, or to freeze- all in an instinctual bid to keep you alive. These changes occur as a result of the activation of the sympathetic system, which is part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is called that because it causes things to happen automatically and outside of your voluntary control.

Not so coincidentally, the biological changes you go through with the “fight or flight” response mirror the list of physical symptoms for anxiety above!

But Why Do We Need This Fight or Flight?

If you imagine your ancestors back in caveman days wandering around looking for food, the world was a dangerous place. You never knew when you were going to run into a bear, a big cat or another animal that thought you looked like a pretty tasty snack. You would need a way to defend yourself or, at the very least, escape the situation quickly or you wouldn’t survive. And that is exactly what this system does.

The Sympathetic System Today

In today’s world, most of us are not confronted by wild animals in our daily lives. We do however still face dangers that require immediate action to keep us alive. Think of the time you were riding a bike and were narrowly missed by a passing car, or when the neighborhood dog came running out of the yard and right at you. In both of these instances, you had to react quickly to avoid harm. More often than not though, you will be dealing with a stressful situation such as a deadline at work, money problems, or fighting with your partner. These instances are not a physical threat, but the body isn’t able to distinguish between the two and so it reacts the same way and your fight or flight response is triggered.

And now you’re probably asking yourself what this has to you with your anxiety, right? Well, essentially, if your fight or flight is triggered too often, too intensely, or in some other way inappropriately, you have an anxiety disorder.

What Does This Have to do With Deep Breathing?

Deep breathing triggers the Vagus Nerve which is one of the cranial nerves and is known to kind of wander through the chest and abdominal cavities. When it is triggered, it signals the parasympathetic system whose job it is to reverse everything that the sympathetic system just started with the “fight or flight” response. So, it will:

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  • Lower the heart rate

  • Slow your breathing

  • Restart your digestive system

  • Restart the reproductive system

  • Relax your muscles

  • Return vision to normal

Reverse release of hormones osteocalcin, cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine

How cool is that?!?!

How to Use Deep Breathing

Now that you know the science behind deep breathing, you probably understand why it’s one of the most often recommended interventions by a therapist! And the good news is that it’s really easy to do, free, and is quick too!

One of the most popular deep breathing methods is the 4-7-8 method in which you breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, then blow out for 8 counts. Check out this video by Dr Weil who does a really nice demo here.

Another popular method is called box breathing. In this exercise, you breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, then blow out for 4 counts. And that’s it! Simple, right?

For these exercises, it is generally best to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Also, it’s important to practice every day, twice a day ideally for 2-4 breaths at a time, so even if you do practice twice a day, it’s not a huge time commitment. It is a skill, so the more you practice it, the more effective you will become at it.

When to Deep Breathe

The daily practice of deep breathing will help to keep your sympathetic system from staying on all the time due to that chronic stress we all have in our lives. If you want to practice more than twice a day, go right ahead! It absolutely will not cause any harm. Deep breathing is also very good to do when you find yourself in a stressful situation because it can very quickly calm down your body and allow you to think in a more logical way. And of course, it is also helpful during an anxiety or a panic attack.

I hope this helps you, but if you find you need more help and are seeking anxiety treatment, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation. I’d love to hear from you.


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