Clients who experience anxiety often ask me: “Does deep breathing really work?” When I tell them it does, the next question is always, “But how?!” The thought of being able to reduce anxiety simply by breathing in a different way seems like a bit of nonsense to those who have never tried it. But those who have and who practice is regularly know how powerful the calming effects can be.
But the question remains: WHY does it work?
The simple answer is this: our bodies were designed to have a calm-down mechanism. I will explain the short-hand answer to how this works below.
For basic knowledge, know that we have two main branches of our nervous system. The Central Nervous System (CNS) encompasses the brain and spinal cord. The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) encompasses everything else. The PNS is again divided into several different systems, the most important of which for this article is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is always activated and is responsible for involuntary, automatic actions of our body, such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
For our purposes here, the main thing to keep in mind is that we are designed with two competing systems of the ANS that help maintain equilibrium within our bodies:
1. The Sympathetic Nervous System = the fight or flight response
The sympathetic nervous system is quick to activate in response to threat (real or perceived), and helps us determine whether we can face whatever is around us, or if we need to flee for protection.
When you in inhale, you are activating the sympathetic nervous system.
2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System = the rest and digest response
Also known as the “feed and breed” response, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated more slowly and works at dampening the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It can be thought of as the brakes for the fight or flight response.
When you exhale, you are activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
So essentially, you can think of breathing as an unending battle between the sympathetic nervous system, which is getting you ready for react, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is getting you ready to relax.
Inhalation always leads to greater activation of the sympathetic nervous system than does parasympathetic activation upon exhalation because that off-balance pattern is what keeps us alive: we need to maintain a certain level of arousal (activation); without some degree of arousal, we die.
When we breathe deeply and our lungs fill with air and the sensory nodes on the lungs, which are like stretchy receptors, send information to the brain via the vagus nerve. The deep breaths also activate neurons that detect our blood pressure and the message they send to the vagus nerve is that our blood pressure is elevated (i.e., we are stressed and in distress). In response to these messages, the vagus nerve lowers our heart rate to lower our blood pressure, which signals to the body that the threat is gone.
Simply put, deep breathing turns off the fight or flight response by reducing heart rate and lowering blood pressure, thereby acting as a “brake” to our stress response. As a result, we feel less stressed, more calm, and experience a reduction in tension.
Of course, no discussion on deep breathing would be complete without giving props to our diaphragm, which is what allows us to take these deep, wonderful breaths in the first place. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped band of muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdominal cavity. When you breathe in, the lungs expand because the diaphragm contracts (i.e., flattens and descends), which allows air to be drawn in. As our lungs fill with air, the loop with the vagus nerve gets triggered (recall from above) and our stress levels begin to go down.
Research on deep breathing and breathing patterns has shown that the most calming breathing pattern is 5 seconds to breathe in, and 5 seconds to breathe out, so that you have 6 deep breaths per minute. Take some time now and try it out. Sit in a comfortable position, or lie down comfortably, close your eyes, and try a measured breathing pattern where you breathe in deeply and fully, filling your entire lungs and feeling your diaphragm pull way down into your stomach. You will likely feel your stomach bulge out as you do, sort of like the bulging and sinking rise and fall pattern of a newborn baby or infant breathing during their sleep.
So, the next time you are feeling tense or anxious – perhaps your chest and stomach feel tight, or your thoughts are racing, your heart rate or blood pressure are up or you feel restless and on edge – try engaging in some relaxing deep breathing. It will calm your physical symptoms, which will result in a greater sense of calm in both your brain and your body.
What is an Adaptive Response?
An adaptive response is a balanced statement designed to refute an anxiety-inducing thought, known as an “automatic thought”. The adaptive response acknowledges the anxious thought and then balances it with a “but” statement – a statement that balances out the worry thought and reduces anxiety.
In the example given above, the automatic though (i.e., the anxiety-inducing thought) is “I am worried about the corona virus and that I or my loved ones could get sick”.
Add a BUT after the worry thought, and balance it out:
“But, I have taken all recommended precautions to keep us safe and worrying about it will only make me sick and increase my vulnerability to illness.”
This is a well-balanced adaptive response and if used when worrying about getting sick with the virus, it will be effective at reducing the anxiety.
Follow up an adaptive response with a coping statement after, if needed. Try something like:
Worrying won’t help, but relaxing will.
I am resilient. I will get through this.
Worry begets worry. Let’s keep calm and carry on.
Step 5: Create an action plan. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all crave structure to some degree. Even if you don’t have kids (but especially if you do!), create an activity list of things to do instead of stressing about a virus you can’t control and to ensure boredom stays away. A bored mind tends to wander, so have options ready at hand to stay engaged and limit worry. Maybe now is the time to focus more on learning how to play that new guitar you bought last year, or to learn a new hobby or skill such as knitting, painting, scrapbooking, or writing. Try journaling or sketching, or take time to explore new interests or hobbies. There are tons of options to learn new skills online.
As part of your action plan, don’t forget to stay active. If you have a back or front yard and can get outside for some fresh air and sunshine (think Vitamin D) your brain and body will thank you! Fresh air and activity paves the way for a good night’s sleep (which we all need right now to stay healthy), and sunshine helps keep our circadian rhythms in check, further promoting a good sleep come bedtime. Bike rides, going for a walk and other forms of outdoor activity are all great ways to stay active and healthy, provided you are practicing good social distancing. If you can’t get outside, try doing laps around the house or challenge yourself to the Great Stair Climb by climbing any flight of stairs available in the home at least 5 or 10 times. There are also tons of online yoga and exercise classes. Heck, even housework or chasing after the dog or kids counts as activity!
Lastly, it is okay to recognize and acknowledge that these are strange, confusing and downright trying times right now. But remember, we are all in this together (even if we are not “together”), and we will get through this.
Stay safe and keep well!