How Breathing Affects Anxiety – the Fight or Flight Response

What you should know about anxiety is that anxiety activates our autonomic nervous system, this is often referred to as our “Fight or Flight Response.” This part of our body is associated with the accelerated heart rate to spring into action, blood pressure rises to give us that extra energy, increased muscle tension to give us extra speed and strength etc.  This reaction is a result of the hormone adrenaline being secreted.  An increase in adrenaline is often a response to perceived threat or stress, it prepares the body for action.

How the Body Works

Adrenaline works by prioritizing the blood supply, making sure that oxygenated blood is available in the arms and legs for a quick getaway and throughout the brain to help us make split second decisions. The blood supply is taken from areas of the body where it is not needed in times of danger, such as the stomach and sexual organs, because if one is in a life-threatening situation, they are not going to stop and eat a meal or have sex. This is usually the reason why when someone is continually stressed, he or she may feel sick, is unable to eat or have sex.

Ideally, the stress response should switch on and off when necessary.  This response is hard-wired into our brains and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from a saber tooth tiger.   The sympathetic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system respond in conjunction with one’s fear and anxiety. To restore balance, the parasympathetic nervous system responds by turning off the stress reaction, allowing the individual to return to peacefulness again. However, the sympathetic nervous system can malfunction, leaving the individual in a state of constant red alert. This situation puts strain on the mind and body and if it continues, can lead to depression. A continual anxiety response raises blood pressure, largely due to hormones and chemical reactions, which do not let up as they would in a normal reaction to fear. In such a situation, it is therefore important to break the vicious circle of the fear response and to learn to manage one’s anxiety successfully by bringing it under control.

What You Can Do

One of the simplest things to do is to learn to breathe correctly as this helps to reduce adrenalin production. Generally speaking, we all breathe very shallowly which is a natural habit that everyone falls into. This shallow breathing can lead to the wrong levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in one’s blood. If this happens, the brain can interpret this shallow breathing as an indication of danger. Therefore, when anxiety or panic strikes, one needs to learn how to breathe more deeply and to get air right down to the bottom of one’s lungs. When air reaches this part of one’s lungs, correct gas exchange occurs.

Correct breathing can be achieved by expanding one’s abdomen, then drawing air into one’s lungs. Hold this breath for three seconds. Then once the three seconds have passed,  release your breath slowly. You may feel slightly light headed, do not be alarmed this is an indication that the gases are at the right levels in the body.  If you can practice this three times an hour for optimum results especially when you are feeling stressed.  It not only acts as a  preventative measure, but also as a coping mechanism when anxiety strikes.  When we engage in shallow breathing at times of high anxiety, it actually brings on panic attacks and abdominal breathing can help to control and prevent this from happening.

My Own Personal Experience

I’ve noticed with myself when I am stressed I will unconsciously hold my breath for a split second (creating shallow breathing).  I wouldn’t even notice I was doing this until my partner would notice and ask me “what is wrong?”  I would respond with “nothing is wrong!” However, I was ruminating (=compulsively focusing on your stressors, their causes, what could have been done differently etc.) about something stressful in my head and then my body was going into stress mode and changing my breath.  Now that I’ve become aware of this, I always try to check in with myself that I am breathing fully and properly whenever I am feeling stress.  It is amazing the difference a few deep breaths make! And it’s so simple.  How did I not realize this before?

The message to take home is that breathing can work wonders when we are stressed.  When you are feeling stressed or anxious, pay attention to your breathing.  Is it restricted and shallow? If so, take a few deep breaths to get that oxygen flowing in your blood.  Make sure to also implement some self-care and do some stretches to get the blood flowing throughout your body.  Give yourself that minute because your body needs it.

CLICK HERE  for a handout on How Breathing Affects Anxiety from Psychology Tools

One thought on “How Breathing Affects Anxiety – the Fight or Flight Response

  1. Love your article. I definitely breathe very shallow when I’m stressed and it’s so subconscious. My fiance regularly asks me, why are you so red (blushed)? I realize it’s because I’m not breathing! Happened again just last night! I’m going to try your breathing technique and to be more aware of my breath. I used to always breathe into my upper body instead of my stomach but yoga and meditation have really helped me practice this. It really makes a difference of where you breathe! Thanks Tanya for the great article. Many of us need to learn to just “breathe”. So simple yet totally forgotten about. 🙂

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