When you are stressed out, anxious, etc. your body is in some degree of the ‘fight-or-flight response,’ which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It is a survival mechanism that is only supposed to be activated for a few minutes at a time to help you fight, or flee danger. When it stays activated for longer periods of time, we feel unsettled, irritable, unfocused, tired and even depressed.
When our body perceives danger where there actually is none, it responds to the idea of danger as if the danger is real. This means that our bodies respond to the fear of failing a test with the same biochemical cocktail and physical response as fear of a dog chasing us! Usually, in lower levels, but with certain anxiety disorders, we may still experience full-blown panic in tests, performances, social situations, etc. Your body is just trying to keep you safe though; the trick is to convince it that you are not actually in danger. To do this, we need to activate the ‘rest-and-digest response,’ which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.
How to activate the calming nervous system
Most people ask, “How do I turn off the fight-or-flight response??!!” It’s a valid question, but a better one is, “How do I turn ON the rest-and-digest response?” The human brain struggles to follow directions in the negative (i.e. DON’T think about a purple elephant. . . be honest, you thought about a purple elephant, didn’t you? Exactly). It works far better with a simpler command in the affirmative like, “DO think about a green cat.” (See? You thought about a green cat). So, rather than looking at how to turn off a survival mechanism like the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight), we will have more luck learning to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). Generally speaking, only one is activated at a time, so turning on the parasympathetic nervous system IS how to turn off the sympathetic nervous system.
Your breath is the ON switch for calmness
This is actually a neurobiological and biochemical fact. The overall process is called the Relaxation Response and it has been studied for nearly a hundred years.
To activate the rest-and-digest response, you control your breathing. I explain 3 different breathing exercises that you can try in the How to Relax and Unwind post.
I will explain here the proper technique for the calming breath (At first, this is easiest to practice laying down):
- Lie down with a pillow under your knees
- Place your hands on your belly
- When you inhale, allow your belly (not so much your chest) to rise into your hands (You aren’t really pushing it out, but in the beginning, it may feel like you have to in order to get the idea)
- Do this inhale a little slower than your normal breath, perhaps a little deeper so you can really feel your hands rise with your belly
- Hold that inhale for a moment
- When you exhale, you should allow your belly to sink back into your body (You don’t need to actively suck your belly in here, but as with the inhale, you may feel the need to do so in order to get the basic idea)
This is called diaphragmatic breathing (or ‘belly breathing’). It is the kind of breathing you see high-level athletes, yoga practitioners, martial artists, etc. doing.
You are breathing like you are sleeping
When you are sleeping, your belly rises and falls as you breathe. This means that the brain associates your most relaxed state of sleep with belly breathing. . . so if we leverage this and breathe like we are sleeping, the brain receives a signal that all is ok. There is more to it like how we are increasing the amount of oxygen in our blood, but that’s another discussion. Basically, when you use your diaphragm (the large muscle under your lungs) to breathe, it sends a signal to the brain to slow the brain waves down and to release calming chemicals to help you relax. That’s the relaxation response! It takes practice to get the breathing correct, but it is worth it. You’ll notice a difference in how you feel pretty quickly, and the benefits for sleep and anxiety are not too far behind, so don’t give up!
Some find it helpful to picture a bellows pointing upwards where your belly expands where the hands pull the bellows apart, then contracts to ‘exhale’ the air through the nozzle (in this case, you inhale through your nose [Entrance for air in this image], and exhale through your mouth [The nozzle in this image]).
Learn more about Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.