Struggling with anxiety takes a toll both emotionally and physically. Have you ever noticed how your body feels when anxiety begins to rise? The muscles around your neck and shoulders get tense, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, you may even experience dizziness and a racing heart. Our minds and bodies are connected.
Through research into the physiological characteristics of anxiety, we’re learning even more about how our minds and bodies are linked—the wellbeing of one is closely governed by the wellbeing of the other. Understanding the physical interaction between the body and the mind is incredibly important in understanding how to manage negative emotional patterns. If we manage the physical symptoms of anxiety, we can actually help manage the emotional stress, too. Through practices such as breathwork, regulating physical responses to anxiety is very accessible and has been demonstrated to be very effective in controlling unhealthy mental states.
What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
Before we go any further, it’s extremely important to understand the proper breathing method. The majority of anti-anxiety breathing techniques are centered on the practice of replacing chest breathing with diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing involves breathing deeply by fully expanding the belly, engaging the abdominal muscles, and contracting the diaphragm. With every inspiration, the diaphragm muscle pulls down and the belly expands, allowing the lungs to fill with air. On expiration, the abdominal muscles slowly pull the ribs down towards the hips as the lungs deflate.
By contrast, chest breathing takes place in the upper chest and is characterized by rapid shallow breaths that can upset oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and contribute to chronic stress.
This breathing method is known to trigger a variety of relaxation responses in the body. When paired with controlling breath rate, diaphragmatic breathing can be very effective in reducing anxiety (Ma et al).
Anxiety Can Be Caused by an Overactive “Fight or Flight” Response
Let’s take a look at how deep and controlled breathing can manage anxiety on a body systems level. First, it’s important to understand how the autonomic nervous system controls unconscious physical processes such as breath rate, heart rate, and blood pressure. It does this through the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Let’s break that down.
- The primary role of the “fight or flight” sympathetic system is to prepare the body for dangerous situations by increasing heart rate, releasing adrenaline and cortisol, and causing muscles to tense.
- The role of the “rest and digest” parasympathetic system is to maintain the body in a state of calm by reducing heartrate, promoting digestion, and causing relaxation.
Proper functioning of both is vital for a healthy nervous system. Individuals who experience chronic levels of apprehension or panic for a real or a perceived threat can get stuck in a state of heightened, physically draining arousal through overactivation of the “fight or flight” sympathetic system. In fact, multiple studies have demonstrated that dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system is closely linked to anxiety disorders (Ma et al).
The Secret to Managing Anxiety? Breathwork.
Thankfully, we can use conscious breathing interventions to improve nervous system function so that arousal and relaxation are properly balanced. An example is the relationship between breathing and heart rate. This relationship is something we all understand intuitively. Think of the last time you felt your heart race. Was your breathing rate elevated, too? On the other hand, when you feel relaxed, both breathing and heart rate tend to drop together.
During normal breathing, your heart rate naturally speeds up via sympathetic activity as you breath in and slows down via parasympathetic activity as you breath out (Narkiewicz et al). This healthy cyclical rhythm of paired sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, known as heart rate variability, is considered to be an indirect measure of health and wellbeing. For those of us experiencing anxiety, heart rate variability is often measurably reduced. (Zope & Zope).
The Ancient Art of Breath Discipline
Controlling stress through breathwork is an ancient discipline. Yoga breathing techniques such as Ujjayi, or “Victorious Breath,” can actually restore normal heart rate variability by increasing parasympathetic activity with slow, conscious breathing, leading to reduced anxiety (Zope & Zope). However, it’s not only activation of the “rest and digest” system that improves anxiety management. You can actually purposely trigger the “fight or flight” response to your advantage through breathwork! Breath techniques such as Bhastrika may also work to reduce anxiety by exercising the “fight or flight” sympathetic system in a safe manner through controlled rapid breathing (Zope & Zope).
Learn More about Breathing Techniques for Managing Stress
Understanding the physiological mechanisms involved in anxiety gives us a framework for managing stress both responsively and proactively. This is a science-backed approach that can be employed any time, anywhere. Mindy by Healthport is a mental health coaching tool that helps users connect positive mental health habits to the everyday stressors of life. We believe in providing everyone with the tools they need to succeed. To learn more about specific breathing techniques to reduce anxiety, see our post 5 Breathing Techniques That Reduce Anxiety.
Narkiewicz, Krzysztof, et al. “Sympathetic Neural Outflow and Chemoreflex Sensitivity Are Related to Spontaneous Breathing Rate in Normal Men.” Hypertension, vol. 47, no. 1, 2006, pp. 51–55., doi:10.1161/01.hyp.0000197613.47649.02.
Ma, Xiao, et al. “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874.
RA;, Zope SA;Zope. “Sudarshan Kriya Yoga: Breathing for Health.” International Journal of Yoga, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23440614/.
Zaccaro, Andrea, et al. “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 12, 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353.