It might seize you in the middle of the night, or perhaps at the beginning of a work meeting, or maybe while driving your kids to soccer practice. Wherever it happens, it can overwhelm you. Your mind won’t stop running. Your body is tense. Your heart is racing. You can’t breathe! You can’t relax and enjoy yourself. If you have ever felt a combination of these sensations, you have probably felt anxiety—a common experience among adults and adolescents. Whether you accept it or not, anxiety is part of a normal, healthy life. Diagnosable anxiety disorders, however, are different than normal, everyday anxieties. A hallmark characteristic of an anxiety disorder is excessive fear or anxiety about a real or perceived threat (DSM-V).
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 40 million people in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder in a given year. That’s 18 percent of the population! Specific anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, selective mutism (failure to speak in social situations even when able to speak in other situations), specific phobias (fear of animals, objects, etc.), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or agoraphobia (fear of having a panic attack or other embarrassing symptoms in locations such as public transportation, standing in a line, etc.). Some anxiety disorders, such as phobias and generalized anxiety disorder, most often begin in childhood around 11 years old and can continue into adulthood if left untreated. These two disorders are the most common anxiety disorders in adulthood according to SAMHSA.
Because of their belief that things will not change, or that they just need to get over it, many suffering with an anxiety disorder do not seek treatment. The good news is that anxiety is treatable! Your biology has a lot to do with an anxiety disorder; therefore, a first step in reducing anxiety includes dealing with the body’s physical response to stress.
Your body’s internal organ regulator, your autonomic nervous system (ANS), has two applicable parts of the solution. First is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is in charge of your fight-or-flight responses. This part, for example, pumps up the mailman’s body so she can outrun that dog hiding in the bushes. Second is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which aids in calming your body. This part helps her body deescalate after she has escaped that dog so she can return to delivering the mail as usual.
When you feel anxious, your SNS is engaged. To help calm your body in these moments, the key is to activate your PNS. The exercise outlined below (partially adopted from The Anxious Brain: The Neurobiological Basis of Anxiety Disorders and How to Effectively Treat Them) triggers this part of your ANS.
How to do it:
- Lie down, stand, or sit in a comfortable position. Make sure you are “grounded” by creating an open posture with both feet on the floor and your back against a chair or bed. If you are crying, in the fetal position, or hunched over, this technique is difficult to do.
- Breathe in deeply. Picture a water balloon being filled with water as you first fill up your abdomen with air and then your chest. Feel the warmth and the weight of the air as you breathe in.
- Breathe out with an elongated breath—longer than it took you to breathe in. Purse your lips as you breathe out. This will slow your breathing. Breathing out slowly will help activate the PNS, which helps calm your body—the whole purpose of this breathing technique.
- As you breathe in and out, focus on the physical sensations you experience. Focus on your feet touching the ground, your abdomen and lungs expanding and contracting, the feel of air rushing over your tongue and through your pursed lips. Notice how your head, arms and hands feel. Doing this will help you be present and in-the-moment.
- Practice! This is a skill that must be developed. Try doing it while you are at work, stopped at a traffic light, or at home. Do each cycle (breathing in and breathing out) ten times or more, as you learn to engage your PNS.
- If you feel dizzy, light headed or out of breath, do not continue this technique. If your breathing is restricted or obstructed there may be other issues to consider. Speak with a therapist or doctor about the appropriateness of this exercise for you. This technique is a good start to help reduce anxiety in the moment, but is most successful when done in conjunction with therapy.
Anxiety disorders affect millions. Those who suffer with anxiety often feel there is no solution. But basic biology tells us differently. Activating our PNS through breathing techniques really does work—give it a try next time you feel anxiety creeping in. You might be surprised at how effective these simple breathing techniques can be!
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine
Written by Dr. Triston Morgan