When was the last time you felt anxious? Was it a first date? Teaching your child how to drive? Your most recent job interview?
How did you manage the anxiety during that event? Did you call someone and vent? Maybe you just tried to distract yourself until it was over.
When we are anxious, it can feel dismissive or invalidating when someone tells us to “Just breathe.” When we’re in a spiral, it’s hard to imagine being able to stop and do it.
Maybe the well-meaning person didn’t know what else to offer us in our distress. Or maybe they have tried it and got relief-and they want us to have relief too! As someone that provides anxiety therapy in Atlanta, I understand that people may be skeptical about the effectiveness of breathing when we’re anxious.
Now, breathing isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, it actually works as a way to avoid certain anxieties. A trained Atlanta anxiety therapist can help you determine what approach is best for you.
Read on to discover how- and why- breathing can work in certain circumstances.
The Nervous System
Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls our unconscious processes including digestion, sexual arousal, and our fight or flight response. It’s made of two parts:
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) takes care of our resting, digestion, and calm response, among many other things.
- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is most famous for the fight or flight response.
This is a very simplified explanation but it helps to demonstrate the significance of some of the following information.
Sensing a Threat
When our brain has decided that we are in danger, it activates the SNS which turns on everything to promote survival and slows or turns off everything that is unnecessary to survival. This looks like a spike in adrenaline and cortisol, faster heart rate, sweaty palms, and other bodily sensations that make us aware that we are feeling scared.
Deep breathing sends a signal to the brain that you are safe.
Slowing down our breath and letting it fill our lungs can help to “quiet” some of the physiological processes that produce the anxiety symptoms, which naturally soothes our bodies.
Sometimes anxiety can leave us feeling somewhat dissociated, obsessing on a thought or fear, or obsessing on the way our bodies are reacting. Breathing exercises can help us return to the present moment and interrupt the progression of rumination and dissociation.
Box breathing is one such exercise. Inhale for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 4 counts. Exhale for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 4 counts.
Mindful breathing occurs when we purposely focus attention on our breath. We notice the way it feels entering and exiting our body.
When we engage our senses while we are breathing, we give our bodies a chance to regulate. An Atlanta anxiety therapist can help you learn to engage the senses and ground successfully.
Access to Logic
When our SNS is in control, we have restricted access to our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that executes reason and logic. This is why we struggle to calm down even if we aren’t in danger. We don’t have access to the part of our brain that can recognize we are safe.
Breathing exercises send that signal of safety to our brain, which allows our body time to calm down, which then allows the prefrontal cortex to see that we aren’t in danger.
Breathing exercises are a simple, accessible way to help us regulate and calm our anxiety on our own. They take some practice, and when done regularly can assist with anxiety over time.
No, breathing isn’t the only approach to therapy. In fact, there are several different approaches that can be helpful with anxiety including ERP which can encourage you to lean into your anxiety.
Our anxiety therapy in Atlanta incorporates techniques like these with other strategies to help you take back control. Call us today.