Anxiety is the body and mind’s threat-detection system going off. It deserves credit for helping the human species survive.
Here’s one way anxiety has been helpful: alerting us when the connection to a parent is in jeopardy. Early baby humans who experienced and listened to this anxiety when their play carried them too far away from a parent, likely scampered back to that parent to feel safe and protected again. This response to anxiety protected them from those unsavory predators who would dine on an unprotected small human with delight.
Anxiety is useful when it alerts us to a bad outcome that has a reasonable probability of happening. It becomes a problem when it alerts us to a bad outcome that has a really low probability of happening.
From the earlier example, if that kid began to imagine a lot of other -low-probability – threats to the connection to his parent, then he would be full of anxiety nearly all the time.
What happens when we’re stuck in anxiety?
The experience of anxiety is actually tied to the nervous system that gets us ready to fight or flee in the face of threat. Getting ready for the threat does this to the body:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Increased saliva
- Muscle tension
- These symptoms feel a lot like what happens in anxiety.
How to unhook the body from the anxiety spiral
There are two ways to reduce anxiety:
1) Adjust your perception of what constitutes a threat
2) interrupt your body’s fight-or-flight response.
We have a nervous system that acts in opposition to the one – mentioned earlier – that gets activated during the fight-or-flight response. The job of this nervous system is to calm us down. This breathing exercise taps into this second nervous system and kicks off a cascade of relaxing experiences.
Benefits of this breathing exercise include:
- A deep sense of relaxation in your body
- Loosening of muscle tension
- Feeling more present in the moment
Empower your nervous system to relax with this breathing exercise
Diaphragmatic Breathing entails expanding your stomach as you breathe in through your nose and exhaling gently through your mouth.
The key to ensuring that you are getting the desired benefit from this practice is to put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
If you are doing this correctly, the hand on your stomach should be moving further away from you than the hand on your chest.
Try to do this exercise 3-4 times per day for 5 minutes. It is something you can do while driving, riding public transportation, working at a desk, or while lying in bed. If you can consistently do this in your life, your body will gain more familiarity with the feeling of relaxation and less likely to jump into fight-or-flight mode when you feel yourself getting anxious.
About the Author
Jay Reid is a Registered Professional Clinical Counselor Intern (#1189) who is trained in psychotherapy for anxiety.
According to Jay, “Problems with anxietydo not just spring up from within – there were events and/or relationships that contributed. Your suffering often reflects how you had to cope with such overwhelming or depriving situations during your life.”