Ask a Therapist: Column #6 On Breathing
Q: I’m really sick of people telling me to “just breathe” because I don’t understand how this is an actual solution to my anxiety. Why is there such a focus on breathing in psychotherapy?
A: I can totally relate to this inquiry. If I’m honest, I felt the exact same way for many years. It wasn’t until I studied and read more about the subject of “breathwork” that I fully understood it’s profound impact on mental health and wellness. Since becoming a psychotherapist and engaging in several practices that involve breathwork, I am a believer in it’s effectiveness when it comes to protecting against the overwhelm of anxiety and as an intervention that works in managing active anxiety in the moment.
I think people are hesitant to take breathing techniques (or perhaps unsolicited advice) seriously because they seem too simplistic. Don’t we breathe naturally every day? How is that going to actually help? Can’t you give me an intervention that has more substance?
The truth is, working with our breath is probably the most basic but also the most profound way to check in with ourselves and foster restoration in our system. When we mindfully control and deepen our breathing we tell our brains that we are okay and that communication changes the way our whole being is functioning.
Without getting into all the complex neuroscience, deep and controlled breathing may be the most effective way to communicate to our brains that we are safe and that we are in control. When the amygdala (our survival brain) hijacks the rest of our brain to ensure our survival when under attack, we experience what most would call the fight, fight, or freeze response. This response kicks in when our thoughts, emotions, and/or bodily reactions tell our brain that we are threatened, even when that is not the case.
Anxiety is a fear-like response based in future-thinking, so we are not actually under attack when we are experiencing anxious symptoms. We really do feel as though we are threatened but we are actually safer that we think and we need to remind our brains of that reality.
In contrast, if a tiger was lunging toward you at this very moment, legitimate fear (not anxiety) would activate the survival response you need where only what is necessary to keep you alive is active in the brain.
For example, when the tiger growls, you don’t need your executive brain functioning to help sort through your monthly budget, you are just hoping and praying that the tiger spares your life! All your energy – and brain chemistry – is focused on keeping you safe; other details can wait because they don’t matter in the face of a legitimate threat.
In the case of the tiger attack, your life is in jeopardy but when we are anxious we just feel that way.
Anxiety tricks the brain into thinking a tiger is attacking and the amygdala takes over even when it doesn’t need to intervene. If you can pause in that moment of panic and engage with your breath in a way that is methodical and clearly controlled, your brain begins to reconnect as a whole and realizes that, in fact, the tiger is not there.
So, even when your mind and body experience the realities of anxiety, you can tell yourself the truth with the way you breathe. There are lots of tips and tricks that psychotherapists teach and recommend that can help you build breathwork practices to support the management of anxiety. As trite as the advice may sound, your breathing can be incredibly persuasive and a powerful technique to harness for your wellbeing.
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