Updated: May 25
Anxiety is typically experienced as nervousness or worry about events with uncertain prospects. To a certain level, anxiety is normal. The criteria for generalized anxiety is defined as “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities.”
Some of the most prominent symptoms of anxiety include excessive worrying that appear uncontrollable, faster breathing, unease, bodily aches, and feeling unwell. One of the most prominent symptoms of anxiety that suffers of anxiety report, besides stressful worrying, is difficulty with relaxing and persistent thinking which can be disruptive to sleep.
One of the ways people with anxiety can learn to relax is by rethinking the concept of breath. Breathing is thought of as an unconscious process, which it is, but it also happens to be one that we control. Most mind-body relaxation exercises from tai chi to yoga center on the idea of breath awareness. Many suffers of anxiety explain experiencing breathlessness or hyperventilation.
Here is what happens we experience anxiety:
· Initial Trigger: Here is the onset of an upsetting event, or stressful situation
· The brain misinterprets this thinking it literally as life or death, releasing the unfortunate adrenaline
· And it’s the signature anxiety symptoms from here – the adrenaline jump-starts feelings of fear, making you sweat, increase heart rate, feel nauseous and nervous
· The downward spiral continues making the stress levels sear, kicking up a notch of breathlessness and the fear factor of feeling out of control
· By this time, the emotion controlling area of the brain is well over stimulated to have true difficulty with maintaining control of the symptoms
Physical symptoms of anxiety associated with breathlessness:
There are many, and here are a few to draw an understanding of how the physical symptoms of anxiety are related to breathing.
· Shallow breathing
· Fast, uncontrolled breathing
· Pounding heart
· Pain or tightness in the chest or abdominal area
· Stomach churning
· Dry mouth
In his work on mindfulness and anxiety, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, points to some foundations on how our body deals with stressful situations. He identifies our instinct for flight or fight – a survival mechanism designed to protect us. Its main purpose is to respond to situations by either running away from it or tackling it.
For the most part, when a novel situation is introduced – say you are heading into a meeting with too many people and this isn’t your comfort zone; you feel uneasy, hot, and breathless. For our thought experiment, let’s make it an unavoidable, can’t run away kind of meeting: you’re in fight mode – nervous, breathless, and hot, far from seeming fight mode like.
You may experience the heat, breathlessness, and unease along with multiple other physical sensations of anxiety throughout the course of the meeting as you stick it out, however the next meeting with the same set of people will have you feeling lesser intensity of nervousness and apprehension. This is because flight or fight is a normal, generally controllable response.
Sometimes though, it is neither controllable or normal in response. It can be triggered frequently and can become out of control, amplifying the breathlessness and anxiety, both unfortunately increasing and feeding each other.
Anxiety unfortunately decreases the ability to maintain composure. Being anxious makes people more tense, feel a tightness around their chest, and for some, can make the focus on their inability to breathe, further exacerbating the breathlessness. Anxiety makes the breathing faster, shallower, more uncontrolled, giving the feeling of increased breathlessness.
Take that breath back: Things you can do when you are anxious:
· Stop – Break the cycle. Take a break – remove yourself from the situation (temporarily)
· Consciously relax your shoulders
· Bring awareness to the breath
· Drink something cooling
Breathing awareness and mindfulness:
Jon Kabbat-Zinn advises to pay attention to everyday things to cultivate mindfulness. His tip on mindfulness is to bring awareness to what you would not, and do not typically notice like the sensation of each breath going in and out, or the melt of the cheese in your sandwich, or the warm glow of the night lamp. The key to noticing these things is to notice them with a curious mind, without judgment – to pay attention without changing the thing.
· Sit in a comfortable position
· Allow for the back to be supported
· Place a light hand on your stomach, just under the abs
· Concentrate on the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe
· Say “breathe in” and “breathe out” in your mind for focus on the present moment
The key is rhythmic, calmer breathing. Once you have this down, continue practicing it to feel the nervousness, tension, and physical sensations ease, and possibly give way to a more relaxed state.
Brantley, Jeffrey, and Jon Kabat Zinn. Calming Your Anxious Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Anxiety, Fear and Panic. New Harbinger, 2007.
©2020 by Irem Choksy, LMFT