We all have a sympathetic nervous system called the fight-or-flight response. It governs the body's response to perceived threats, stress, distress, and danger, real or imagined. Its purpose is to save our lives by preparing us to fight or flee in the face of danger.
When exposed to a stressful event, an area of the brain called the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This region of the brain communicates with the nervous system and triggers a sense of anxiety, fear, and danger. This surge in hormones happens with real threats and imagined ones in as little as 1/20th of a second, less than the amount of time between two beats of the heart. Even if there's no real danger standing in front of us such as that of a grizzly bear, intense bodily reactions can occur that make a person feel sick.
Multiple effects take place in the body when the fight-or-flight response is activated:
-The heart pumps more blood resulting in stronger, faster heartbeats.
-More oxygen is needed to run away from a potential threat so breathing may get faster causing hyperventilation, lightheadedness, or a fainting feeling.
-Blood moves away from the digestive system to support "fighting" muscles, resulting in stomach discomfort, nausea, and sometimes diarrhea.
-An increase in blood flow might cause a person's body temperature to rise; they may sweat or get red in the face.
-Pupils dilate so we can spot potential danger better.
-Muscles preparing to fight become tense, and this can create a feeling of unsteadiness, shakiness, and tightness in the chest.
After the threat is gone, it can take between 20-60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.
The parasympathetic system is responsible for our "rest-and-digest" response system, which is our body's natural relaxation response. Through it, systems return to normal function and it allows us to calm down. It tells the body things like "you are safe" and "you can relax now." We can counter the fight-or-flight response using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response quicker. Examples include focusing on and repeating a soothing word (such as 'calm' or 'peace'), visualization of peaceful scenes, controlled abdominal breathing, yoga, and tai chi. One method reigns significantly higher in reliability and it is the most vital source we have access to: our breath.
We tend to hold our breath when we are tense, stressed, or scared. Our breathing pattern becomes choppy and shallow; our exhalations might be longer than our inhalations and vice versa. Incomplete breaths stimulate the fight-or-flight response, so when the breath becomes erratic, it is an indication we are not breathing well and pushing ourselves too hard.
Improving our breathing pattern has a direct effect on our physical and emotional state because our respiratory system connects to the central nervous system and activates our relaxation response. By learning how to maintain a smooth, natural breathing pattern we are more likely to attain the ability to remain calm in mind and comfort in the body. Imagine feeling supported in the middle of chaos with unwavering alertness just from breathing better! Achieving this state is not as simple as it sounds, especially in the middle of an anxiety attack. For that reason, it is better to practice connecting to our natural breathing rhythm when the fight-or-flight response is not active. Aim to practice taking full complete breaths 1-2 times for at least 3-5 minutes a day, gradually increasing it to 10-minute sessions.
The purpose of anxiety is to prepare us to act to save our lives when we are in danger. Problems occur when our fight-or-flight response is activated too often and too long. Identifying our breathing patterns and learning to breathe better is worth the effort since both help target particular experiences, sensations, and reactions we want to change. By relying on our breath in times of stress, we can initiate the peaceful side of the nervous system, our rest-and-digest response, quicker, and feel calm more often.
Greenberger, Dennis, and Christine A. Padesky. Mind Over Mood. The Guilford Press, 2016.