Often when people are faced with high emotions, they are told to “just breathe”. It can feel frustrating to be reminded of such as simple act when in the middle of a crisis. However, the act of breathing is not quite so simple. How an individual breathes has been shown to have an impact on anxiety levels.
Our autonomic nervous system is divided into two different parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The nervous system controls things without conscious thought, such as digestion and heart rate. The sympathetic part controls the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic part controls the rest and relax response. It is this part of the brain that can harm or help an individual with anxiety.
During a stressful situation, your body may start to breathe in short shallow breaths to increase the amount of oxygen in the body, preparing for fight or flight. When excess oxygen is taken in during a non-emergent situation, it can cause an imbalance in the body creating the symptoms felt during anxiety. In these situations, deep breathing can be helpful to re-balance the body and decrease feelings of anxiety.
Deep breathing is different from the average breath. During a deep breath, the stomach will flatten and the chest will expand. Imagine you are responsible to blow out all of the candles on a large birthday cake in one breath. Consider how deeply you would breathe before starting. It is this type of breath that may help during times of panic or anxiety.
There are mental and physical benefits to engaging in deep breathing. If an individual is visualizing a birthday cake and focused on blowing out candles, the mind is focused on something other than stressful thoughts. During a deep breath, the body will begin to re-balance its oxygen levels. It also sends messages to the brain that say “Hey! I am ok! I am safe.” It is with this realization that the brain will release endorphins to decrease stress hormones and allow the body to relax.
As frustrating as it may be for people to hear “just breathe” during a stressful time, deep breathing can be an effective tool if properly done. Nothing may stop an individual from experiencing stress at some point in their life, but by engaging in deep breathing, the symptoms and impact on an individual’s life may be reduced.
For some, there may be times when anxiety can dominate and overwhelm thoughts and emotions. It can be difficult to refocus on the present and regain control. Grounding is one technique that uses the senses to allow the body and mind to refocus. There are multiple ways to utilize grounding that are convenient and free to do, such as:
Closing your eyes and identifying 5 things you hear
Looking around your area and naming 5 specific things (by size, shape, color, etc.)
Creating a mental list (every book you have read, movies you have watched, countries, states etc.)
Running your hands under cold water or holding an ice cube
Looking at a picture that brings you joy
Taking deep breaths
Moving your body (stretching, walking around or up/down stairs)
Eating a mint
All of these activities are easily done, even in a public area, and allows time for the body to engage the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the relaxation response. If you find yourself experiencing racing thoughts or overwhelmed by life, try one or two of these activities to ground yourself in the present moment.