Anxiety & Panic Attacks: Just Keep Breathing

deep breathing


Mental health professionals, including those who subscribe to alternative healing methods agree: Focused breathing is a calming act. It can help you to end anxiety or panic attacks or prevent them altogether.

There are several ways to breathe yourself calm. Some techniques are featured at Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation – WebMD. You can focus on or repeat a calming word or phrase for added calming power, during your relaxation breathing. Experts tend to recommend that you do breathing exercises for ten minutes or so, for optimal effect.

Calm Breathing Prevents a Flight of Flight Response

Let’s get some biological facts straight to understand your body’s reaction to stress and how you can prevent it from undermining your daily life. The first thing to know is that your brain signals your body’s chemistry to relax or to become vigilant depending on how it perceives the world around you. Here’s a simplified explanation of how the system works:

The HPA Axis coordinates your brain and body’s response to stress.

  • The “H” stands for hypothalamus, which sits mid-brain and above the amygdala.
  • “P” stands for pituitary gland, located behind your nose, between the hypothalamus above it and the amygdala below. Pituitary glands are part of the body’s endocrine aka hormonal system, controlling many bodily functions. In times of danger it can raise your level of alertness. That’s helpful only if you are genuinely endangered but problematic if you’re not.
  • “A” is for the amygdala part of this HPA axis. Your amygdala is part of your emotional life. It decides if the sights and sounds around you are safe or dangerous. If the decision is “Dangerous” then the amygdala will signal “Distress: Put the body into Fight or Flight Mode” to your hypothalamus. It will signal your pituitary gland to fire up your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands (also part of the endocrine system) will pump out the epinephrine hormone, sometimes called “adrenaline,” to your blood system. Chemical reactions that fire up your sensory perception (touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight) will cause your energy levels to go into rapid action before you consciously decide anything. That’s why many reporters quote what people saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted when they struggled to remain alive in a dangerous situation. The sensations kept them alert to dangers they needed to avoid. It’s also why unhappy people tell their therapists or anybody within listening distance what they sensed in a miserable situation.

As you take life-saving actions in situations perceived as dangerous, your levels of adrenaline/epinephrine will eventually decrease (a never-ending supply of the chemical would keep you excessively nervous for too long to remain healthy).

In order to preserve your safety in times of perceived danger, your hypothalamus will then excite the adrenal system again, and another chain reaction of chemicals will keep you alert a bit longer. Eventually the chemical chain reactions will stop and you’ll feel tired, maybe exhausted.

By actively changing your focus from danger to calm breathing, you end or prevent the chemical chain reactions described above. That’s enough biology for this brief article. Let’s go on to the rest of the Calm Breathing story, now that you’re ready to understand it.

Why it Works

Focused, intentional breathing calms your brain and body because the attention and energy that you spend on doing it distracts your attention from the upsetting thoughts that initially bothered you. Your calmed and distracted brain will not bother to send a “Danger!” signal to the amygdala. Your state of mind will remain stable rather than upset and your emotions will remain more stable than if you were nervous. Your body will remain relaxed, not hypervigilant. This is true if the problem before you is emotional or physical.

Calm breathing prevents the amygdala from developing alarm warnings and thus the “I’m in danger” chemical chain reaction from reaching your hypothalamus. Survival commands will not be issued to the rest of your body. Your adrenal glands will not release “Fight or flight” epinephrine aka adrenaline into your bloodstream. Epinephrine bursts cause rapid breathing and a rapid pulse. They seem to remind startled people that Something is Threatening Me before they quite realize what the threat is and afterward. By preventing that entire scenario from continuing, or even from starting, your purposely poised breathing focuses on, and produces, a calming sensation throughout your brain and body.

In the event that you feel alarmed, angry or frightened about something, you can cope with your body’s stressed reaction by using calm breathing skills to better deal with the event. Clearer thinking will result from the calming effort, and that’s a good coping tool. It lets you strategize and to decide what is good or bad in a given situation. Clear, calm thinking also enables you to accept some reality or other. That level of acceptance explains why some people deal with problems calmly and in an orderly fashion. Panic has limited value when it comes to saving one life or more, though. It tends to dull or to confuse clear thinking efforts. That results in false assumptions, inappropriate responses and just possibly a continuation of self-induced problems.

Perfect Your Breathing Technique(s)

Practice your breathing techniques for calming down before you need them. Do them daily to prepare yourself to cope better with any sort of otherwise stressful issue. You might find yourself meditating on calming thoughts and that’s fine. Many breathing coaches advise that you breathe in slowly and deeply with your nose, fill your belly and chest with the air, and then release the breath with your mouth. This link explains the calming effect of such breathing.

Once you realize which calm breathing techniques work best for you, you’ll have one or more tools ready to use when keeping calm, and having a clearly thinking mind in threatening situations is necessary. You’ll even be able to distinguish real danger from non-danger, which can be important for protecting your life and the quality of it.