Anxiety- what purpose does it serve?
When you are feeling anxious, your body produces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. A part of your brain called the Amygdala has made an instant assessment of an experience or a thought you’ve had and decided that you are in danger and under immediate threat. In order to get you to take immediate preventative action to save your life, it has flooded your nervous system with the essential hormones to get you to fight, flee or freeze. It has done this because survival is one of our most basic instincts.
The Amygdala is located in the Limbic (Emotional) brain and does not use reason or logic to make it’s assessments. If you were in actual danger it’s efforts to motivate you to defend yourself or get yourself to a place of safety could actually save your life. “But I know I’m not in any actual danger and yet I can’t seem to get rid of my anxiety” you might say. Yes, but that thought is coming from a different part of your brain, the pre-frontal cortex, which uses logic and rational assessment to reflect on experiences and situations. This part of the brain works more slowly and in a real emergency, it’s response wouldn’t be fast enough to keep you safe. For whatever reason, while you remain anxious, one part of your brain is making the assessment that you are not safe from danger and that you need to take some action to fix that! It isn’t interested in your logical evaluation of the situation. It just wants you to stay alive.
What one simple thing can you do to reduce your Anxiety?
The trick is to convince the Amygdala that the danger has passed and it doesn’t need to keep pumping your nervous system with stress hormones. While this keeps happening, your anxiety won’t reduce. You could try telling it that it doesn’t need to stay in alert mode because you are safe, but this only works sometimes. It’s far more effective to just make a decision to breathe more deeply and more slowly. It doesn’t really matter what method you use to do this. All that matters is that you take a series of slow, long and deep breaths. If you can make the out breath longer than the in breath, that helps even more. Exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part that’s responsible for relaxation. Experiment to find a method of doing this that you find easy and comfortable.
Some people find that it helps to use a counting method like the 4-7-8 Method. To do this you
- Breathe out heavily through your mouth
- Breathe in gently through your nose and count to 4
- Hold the breath counting to 7
- Breathe out heavily through your mouth counting of 8
This is a link that gives some excellent information, including three more examples of different ways of breathing to reduce Anxiety.
Why does breathing slowly and deeply work?
When you are in fight/flight mode your breath is fast and shallow. This enables your body to prime itself to run or fight more effectively. If you’re breathing deeply, the Amygdala assesses this as meaning that you don’t need to get away from danger. If the danger has passed, it doesn’t need to keep producing cortisol or adrenaline. When it stops pumping out the hormones, your nervous system relaxes naturally, your muscles release tension and become loose.
If there is something that is really worrying you, your thoughts can start racing and the stress response can begin all over again. But if you focus on continuing to take the long, slow, deep breaths, regardless of your thoughts, the Amygdala will interpret this as you being safe from danger and you will find yourself relaxing. The more you practice this, the easier it gets and the quicker it starts to work. It can be hard in the beginning to stay focussed on breathing deeply but it’s really worth sticking with it as the benefits are so great.