Question: Why do deep breathing exercises help anxiety?
Answer: Anxiety often is accompanied by shallow, fast breathing, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system and makes anxiety worse. The body sends “danger signals” to the amygdala, which I like to refer to as the part of the brain that pushes the fire alarm button. When the alarm goes off, the brain enters into the fight, flight, or freeze mode. This survival mode helps us when we are in danger, but is not helpful when we are not!
Deep breathing, on the other hand, sends messages to the brain that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that takes over when the body is at rest. Anxiety often “sits in the body,” (just notice your churning stomach or tight chest!), and breathing is a body function we actually have some control over. As we slow down our breathing, messages are sent to the amygdala, and the fire alarm is turned off. Breathing signals to parts of the brain that affect our behavior, thought, and emotion.
To ensure deep breathing, place a hand over your stomach. You may pretend there is a balloon in your stomach inflating and deflating as you breathe in and out. Breathe in through your nose, and breathe slowly out through your mouth. Try to notice the sensation in your stomach as you breathe. Many enjoy the 4-7-8 method: breathe in on four counts, hold for seven, and breathe out for eight. This is repeated four times, twice a day, and consistent use can help to reset the nervous system.
As a counselor, I believe it is important to become curious about the underlying issues of anxiety. A good therapist can help!
Cecilie Croissant, MA, LPC, is owner and therapist at Path of Hope Counseling in Owasso, (pathofhopecounseling.com) and helps people overcome anxiety through EMDR and other modalities.