I get overly anxious sometimes. It can be for the silliest reasons. It can be enough that I had a long day at work and I am alone at home at night. My stress-levels are already higher, because there are multiple deadlines coming up at work – and that in the last two weeks before Christmas… High stress puts my brain on alert.
That makes sense: if we are stressed, that means, or at least meant back when we lived in the Savannah, that something unusual is going on. We were stressed in unknown territories or during a hunt. Our brains needed to be especially alert in order to detect the smallest hint for danger. When we are in such a vigilant state, we see more and we hear more. Small things seem a lot more important to us: that shadow could be the tail of a tiger or the sound could be a lion sneaking up upon us.
Highly vigilant for tiger-tails
However, we don’t live in the Savannah anymore. In our modern world, when I come home from a stressful day at work, it is not always easy to relax. I am alone at home, it is already dark. I live out in the country, the wind is blowing leaves around and small branches hit the house. My brain is still on the lookout for tiger-tails, and the shadows of the leaves in front of my window make me jump. I know that I am safe, but still, I feel nervous. I try to calm myself down by drinking hot tea on the couch, but I keep hearing strange sounds. It is quite a stormy day, and all this starts to make me anxious. Not that I don’t know, that the probability for any real danger is extremely low. But rational reasoning doesn’t impress my highly alert brain. That is the reason, why I feel anxious: I feel, as if I have to be vigilant and cautions, but there is no good reason for it. My intuition does not fit the actual situation I am in. That is what we call anxiety.
If rational reasoning does not help, what can we do to get our brains out of this highly vigilant state? The alertness is based on very old and very basic structures in our brain. The best way to influence these old instinctual parts of our brains is by using very basic techniques. The early-human-half-monkey in us does not care about the low probabilities of people being eaten by tigers in their homes. Therefore, instead of statistics, we should try to influence our physiology. Our brain does not only control our body, our body can in turn also influence our brain.
So, what can we do?
We can try to calm our brain down using a simple technique: if we pretend, we aren’t stressed, and everything is fine, then the brain will react and reduce its hypervigilance as well. How to do that? Simply change your breathing pattern! Take a deep breath in, pause, slowly breathe out, pause, repeat. You will feel calmer within a few breaths already.
There is actual, scientific proof for this effect.
Several studies were able to show that controlled, slow breathing can reduce anxiety. Scientist even have a reasonable explanation of the underlying process: A small group of neurons in the brainstem controls our breathing rhythm. Some of these neurons are connected with other neurons responsible for alertness, attention and stress (in the so-called locus coeruleus), and they can interact both ways. The locus coeruleus is in turn connected to the amygdala, an area well known to be involved in the processing of emotions and especially fear.
If this small group of neurons in the breathing-pacemaker area, which can talk to the alertness-region, is rendered inactive in mice, the animals become extraordinarily chill.
So, if you breathe slowly, these neurons in the brainstem will tell other areas in the brain, that everything is fine, that you are calm and your feelings of anxiety will decrease.
Influencing anxiety and stress via breathing techniques might seem very basic. Bear in mind, though, that this is the only autonomic function in our body that we can modulate voluntarily. And who’s to say that a simple technique is a bad technique? If you can learn to reduce your own stress and anxiety simply by controlling your breathing, wouldn’t that be wonderful? We suggest, you give it a try.
Next time, you feel anxiety bubbling up, do this:
Breathe deeply into your belly, while slowly counting to four. Then hold your breath, again counting to four. Slowly breathe out, counting to four. Hold your breath for another four seconds. Repeat this 4-by-4 breathing cycle ten times, afterwards note how the state of your body and mind have changed. If it is hard for you to stick to the four seconds intervals, keep practicing during times, when you feel fine. It well get easier and prepare you to use this technique in situations, where you feel anxious.
Some scientific background literature:
Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., … & Krasnow, M. A. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science, 355(6332), 1411-1415.
Nardi, A. E., Freire, R. C., & Zin, W. A. (2009). Panic disorder and control of breathing. Respiratory physiology & neurobiology, 167(1), 133-143.
Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2009). Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172(1), 54-62.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
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