“Try taking a few deep breaths.”
If you frequently suffer from anxiety, you’ve probably heard this advice, but a lot of people dismiss it out of hand: How are a few deep breaths going to fix things? I’m facing a real crisis here!
It’s true that deep breathing won’t make the cause of your stress go away. But it’s also true that this technique is really good at putting the brakes on anxiety, helping you calm down enough to address the cause of your stress more effectively. God designed our bodies with this feature, so why not use it?
To understand why deep, controlled breathing works, it helps to understand a little about the physical roots of anxiety.
Your Body’s Emergency Response System
Picture Alex, a firefighter, in the moments after an emergency call comes into the firehouse. He springs into action, grabbing equipment as he races to the fire truck; in a moment, he and his crewmates head out, sirens blaring and lights flashing.
Meanwhile, a similar scene unfolds inside Alex’s body. Seconds after the emergency call spurs Alex into action, his hypothalamus releases hormones that mobilize the body’s defense systems. Alex’s heart rate increases, his breath comes more quickly, the pupils of his eyes dilate, and blood and energy are diverted to his muscles and other vital organs.
This is the same physiological response that has turbo-charged humans’ bodies in the face of danger for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s what Alex needs in order to perform his best when he gets to the scene of the emergency.
When Your Brain Issues a False Alarm
But what happens when the brain sounds the alarm in a situation that doesn’t require a short-term, high-performance physical response? What if, for instance, you have serious financial worries that keep you up at night for hours at a time, your mind racing? Or what if you have to attend a social event at your new job, and you spend days worrying about what could go wrong—or worse, days replaying and critiquing every interaction you had at the party?
When your brain deploys an outsized physiological response to a situation that doesn’t really call for it, the result is anxiety. Unlike the boost that Alex got, the physiological effects of anxiety aren’t helpful; in fact, they can be downright harmful. Will a racing mind or heart help you address your financial problems? No. Will sweaty hands, a clenched stomach, and shortness of breath help you navigate the social labyrinth of your workplace party? Not likely. In fact, you’d probably be better able to deal with these genuinely stressful situations if you weren’t so anxious.
Before you can begin to tackle the external source of your stress, then, you need to regain control of your body. Researchers have identified a number of techniques that work, including deep, controlled breathing.
Control Your Breath to Tamp Down Anxiety
Why does deep, controlled breathing work to tamp down the body’s stress response?
The two main regulators of the body’s physiological state are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system revs things up in the face of a threat and the parasympathetic nervous system slows things back down. Normally, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in shortly after a threat has passed, releasing hormones that help your body’s systems calm down. But when your brain wrongly activates the sympathetic nervous system in response to an ongoing, non-physical threat, anxiety and its symptoms are the result.
Controlling our breath is one way we can consciously activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers have long noted the connection between controlled breathing and a calmer state of mind, and in 2017, a team at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified a patch of 175 nerves that seem to be key to that effect. These nerves monitor your breathing as a clue to your physical state; they send their findings to a brain structure called the locus coeruleus that modulates the activity of the whole brain.
By taking deep, controlled breaths, you’re telling your brain, “It’s okay, we’re not in immediate danger.” This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, putting the brakes on your runaway anxiety.
Four Steps to a Calmer You
Here’s one controlled breathing technique you can try the next time you feel anxious:
- Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Close your eyes.
- Count to four as you breathe in through your nose.
- Count to seven as you hold your breath.
- Counting to eight, blow out through your mouth.
Repeat for at least five minutes or until the anxiety passes. If you’ve been dealing with chronic anxiety for a long time, it may take as long as twenty minutes to calm down.
This trick works so well, it is regularly taught to professional athletes, performers, and emergency responders.
Of course, anxiety is a complicated phenomenon. Deep, controlled breathing techniques aren’t a one-and-done solution to chronic anxiety, which may require the help of a professional.
On the other hand, God designed our bodies with this neat feature. So the next time someone suggests taking a few deep breaths to put the brakes on your anxiety, why not try it?
For more about this topic, see the book Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, by Dr. Greg Popcak. And if you’d like to explore this topic further with a Pastoral counselor, check out our tele-counseling services at CatholicCounselors.com.