Deep Breathing and Anxiety
Elizabeth Thacker, M.Ed., APC
Bethel Haven Counselor
Have you ever gotten anxious, scared, or stressed about something and noticed that your heart rate has gone up? That’s a natural response that our bodies have to stressful or frightening situations. By increasing your heart rate, your body is preparing for “fight or flight,” the urge to fight back or run away from the scary stimulus. Your heart pumps more oxygenated blood to the rest of your body to prepare for action.
Unfortunately, our bodies can’t distinguish between the stress of being attacked by a bear and the stress of giving a presentation, and we experience the same kind of response in both situations. Your body prepares for fight or flight even in events that don’t require that kind of response, and that’s part of why anxiety can be so frustrating.
When your brain sends the signal to your body that you are in danger, whether it’s physical danger or just the danger of being in an uncomfortable situation, our bodies respond by increasing both our heart rate and our breathing rate. However, something you may not know is that the connection goes both ways and we can get our body to send signals back to our brain, as well.
There’s a good reason why we’re often told to take deep breaths when we are anxious or upset. In the same way that our heart rate increases when we take quick, shallow breaths, we can decrease our heart rate by taking slow, deep breaths. When our breathing slows and our heart rate slows, this sends a signal back to our brain that we are not in danger and it allows us to calm down both physically and mentally.
There are many different methods for deep breathing, but my personal favorite is the 4-7-8 method. You inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds, and repeat multiple times. The important part is that you are exhaling for longer than you are inhaling. This is because when we inhale, we are taking new oxygen into our bodies that our heart wants to get out into our bloodstream, thus quickening our heart rate. When we exhale, our heart rate slows, so repeatedly exhaling longer than inhaling slows your heart rate overall.
Take a moment to try this out right now. Take note of how you are feeling before you begin. Then, repeat the 4-7-8 cycle at least five times. Finally, take note of how you feel after you have completed the deep breathing exercise. What differences do you notice? When I practice this, I often notice that both my body and brain feel calmer.
By practicing this deep breathing, you are sending a signal back to your brain that you are safe and you don’t need to access your “fight or flight mode.” This can bring you back to a calmer state where you feel more capable of handling the task in front of you. The most effective way to use this technique is to practice it regularly, multiple times a day, even when you aren’t feeling anxious or scared. This practice will make it easier to call upon the exercise when you find that you are in need of it!
If you’d like, take a moment to comment and tell us how you felt after practicing this exercise and how you feel it could be useful for you!
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Written by our counselors to help promote your help, hope, healing