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Breathing Through Anxiety 


At my Cork Hypnotherapy clinic, I work with a lot of clients to help them overcome anxiety. I find very often that clients might not be aware of what the “fight-or-flight” response is, despite experiencing it often. A lot of clients are also not aware of how beneficial breathing exercises can be for managing anxiety. This article explains what the fight-or-flight response is and how breathing techniques can shut it down. 

What is fight-or-flight?

Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for unconscious processes, such as breathing and heart rate etc. It is made up of two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for relaxing the body after stress and danger). The important thing to know is that only one of these divisions will dominate at one time. That is really important to know because that’s where the solution lies! You can shut down the fight-or-flight response by engaging your body’s relaxation response (i.e. engaging the parasympathetic nervous system).

The fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction that we experience when we perceive something as stressful, frightening or dangerous. It is a survival mechanism that we have inherited from our ancestors. It enables us to react quickly to life-threatening situations (e.g. to fight or run away). The fight-or-flight response becomes activated when the amygdala in our brain perceives a threat. Within a matter of seconds, the amygdala activates this stress response in our bodies. When we are in a genuinely life-threatening situation then this response is very helpful. However, this response can also be triggered by non-life threatening everyday stressors, such as pubic speaking. When this happens it is called an “amygdala hijack”; the amygdala activates fight-or-flight when there is no serious threat to safety. This is a common part of anxiety, and it causes a range of uncomfortable and distressing sensations. 

Uncomfortable sensations of fight-or-flight explained 

Once the amygdala perceives a threat it activates your sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline and other stress hormones are pumped around your body. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow, and your heart rate speeds up. This allows you to take in more oxygen and divert blood and oxygen towards the large muscles. This fast and shallow breathing can make you feel like you are choking and can’t breathe. Adrenaline and reduced carbon dioxide levels in your blood (from breathing fast) can cause dizziness. Due to the reroute of resources, digestion stops which can make you feel sick, or like you have butterflies in your stomach. Your muscles are primed to act so you might find that you start shaking. Your brain might become hijacked with racing thoughts, which can create a feeling of unreality. As blood is diverted to the large muscles, small blood vessels constrict which can cause tingling and numbness in the face, hands, arms, feet and legs. Afterwards, once the threat is gone and the adrenaline has died down, you might feel exhausted, shaky and weak. 

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you are are not alone. What I have just described may sound all too familiar. Anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant. When you are in fight-or-flight, you can become panicked and not know what to do to help yourself calm down. That is why it is so important in those moments to engage your body’s relaxation response through deep breathing. 

Importance of deep breathing

Deep breathing is a natural way to tell your brain that the fight-or-flight response is not needed. Deep slow breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the key nerve pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system and it is responsible for the relaxation response. 

The two key things to remember when trying to breathe through anxiety is: breathe slow and deep. You will want to breathe into your diaphragm. The diaphragm sits between your chest and your belly, at the bottom of your rib cage. This type of breathing is also called “belly breathing” or “abdominal breathing”.

How to practise deep breathing

You can practise diaphragmatic breathing at home by following these steps:

  • Sit or lie down comfortably
  • Have one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm (just below your rib cage)
  • Notice how the hands are moving when you breathe
  • Inhale for a count of 5 seconds
  • Hold the breath for a count of 5 seconds
  • Exhale for a count of 8 seconds 

Once you have practised this type of breathing and are tuned into what it feels like, then it becomes a coping skill. It is something for you to use when you need it. The important thing is to remember the right time to use this breathing technique. At the first sensation of fight-or-flight, just remind yourself to focus on your diaphragmatic breathing. Try to take slow, deep breaths, maybe even with your hand on your belly. If you are breathing slowly and you can can feel you stomach rise and fall, then you know you are doing it right. 

Breathing is just one part of overcoming anxiety

Breathing will certainly help you to calm down and shut down the fight-or-flight sensations. However, it is also helpful to work through why these situations are causing you anxiety. Breathing alone is unlikely to help you overcome anxiety completely. However, it is a very useful coping technique. If you can learn to breath deeply, and in the right situations, it will certainly help. However, in order to truly overcome anxiety you need to learn what is maintaining it. That’s where it can be really helpful to work through this with a therapist.  

The most common (and unhelpful) thing to do when you start to feel that fight-or-flight, is to avoid the situation or thing causing the anxiety. Unfortunately, avoidance only maintains anxiety. To overcome anxiety you have to “approach” those situations you fear and learn to let your anxiety naturally decline. Breathing exercises can help you do this.

Hypnotherapy in Cork

If you are interested in how cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy could help you overcome anxiety, book a free consultation call. Hypnotherapy for anxiety can be offered online and in person at my Cork Hypnotherapy clinic. If you found this article helpful and would like to see more, then follow me on Facebook.

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