As someone whose friends and family know I’ve endured a number of heartbreaking challenges and physical and emotional difficulties, I’m often asked how I cope with anxiety. They see my eternal optimism as at odds with the turmoil I’ve gone through in life and wonder what my secret is for dealing with a magnitude of life’s ups and downs. I tell them, quite simply, that it isn’t a secret, yet the most effective technique I’ve discovered to calm anxiety is deep breathing.
How and why does deep breathing work in calming anxiety? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that about 40 million adults in America have an anxiety disorder, making anxiety this country’s most common mental illness. If deep breathing exercises can help, surely more people should add this technique to their anxiety-busting toolkit. While my anecdotal experiences may serve as peer advice, to further validate the benefits of deep breathing as an easy-to-use anxiety intervention, I combed research for some scientific answers and offer them here.
Deep Abdominal Breathing Reduces Anxiety and Stress
According to the American Institute of Stress, 20-30 minutes of deep breathing daily is effective in reducing both anxiety and stress. It has to be breathing deeply through the abdomen to produce the best results. What happens during deep abdominal breathing is that the oxygen breathed in stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This, in turn, produces a feeling of calmness and body connectedness that diverts attention from stressful, anxious thoughts and quiets what’s going on in the mind.
Researchers Find Why Deep Breathing Induces Tranquility and Calm
Research published in Science uncovered what may be a likely reason why deep breathing is so successful in bringing about a sense of calmness and tranquility. In studies with mice, Stanford University researchers discovered that a neuronal subpopulation in the animals’ primary breathing rhythm generator projects directly to a center of the brain with a key role in “generalized alertness, attention, and stress.” This subgroup of neurons belongs to a cluster of neurons in the brainstem that controls breathing initiation. When scientists removed the neuronal subgroup from the brains of the mice, it did not affect breathing, yet the mice remained in a state of calm. In fact, their calm behaviors increased while they spent less time in agitated or aroused states. Further research, they said, should explore mapping the full range of functions and emotions controlled by the breathing center.
Deep Breathing Turns Off Body’s Response to Stress
When you’re anxious and tense, the body automatically kicks in the stress response. This is known as the “fight or flight” syndrome and is the physiological reaction that occurs from the release of the chemicals cortisol and adrenaline. Initially, the stress response helped man respond to external threats to his existence, like fire, flood, marauding wild animals or an attack by members of rival clans. While not so applicable today, the body’s stress response still throttles up when it senses danger or a threat. Being aware of danger when it suddenly appears helps us take preventive action to save lives. Yet when stress goes on indefinitely, and the stress response is constant or chronic, it wreaks incredible havoc on the body. Not only does anxiety increase, so do a number of health risks, such as obesity, heart disease, and digestive problems. Deep breathing, however, turns off the body’s natural stress response, allowing heart rate and blood pressure to decrease, tension in muscles to relax, and promotes an overall resiliency build-up to better withstand life’s stressors and anxiety.
How Does Deep Breathing Affect Stress?
In a pilot study published in Neurological Sciences, researchers said their results point to the possibility that deep breathing has the capability of inducing mood and stress improvement effectively. The study utilized both self-reports and objective parameters. They noted that deep breathing, particularly as practiced during yoga and qigong, has long been perceived as beneficial to overall well-being. Research of yoga, the oldest known technique for relaxing, has found improvements of a “remarkable” nature in blood pressure, heart rate, body composition, motor abilities, respiratory function, cardiovascular function, and more. Also, researchers found positive effects in mood states, such as anxiety and perceived stress, including deep breathing’s effect on reducing tension anxiety.
Breath Control (Slow, Deep Breathing) Can Decrease Anxiety
Research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that slow, deep breathing can decrease anxiety by promoting changes that enhance autonomic, psychological, and cerebral flexibility through a number of mutual interactions. These include links between central nervous system activities that are related to emotional control, parasympathetic activity, and psychological well-being. The psychological and behavioral outputs resulting from these changes produce an increase in alertness, relaxation, vigor, comfort, and pleasantness and a decrease in anxiety, depression, anger, arousal, and confusion.
In a study published in Frontiers in Physiology, researchers Donald J. Noble and Shawn Hochman investigate the effect that sensory nerves around the chest play in deep breathing’s ability to relax the chest during exhalation, thereby triggering baroreceptors (another set of sensors) in arteries. Both sets of sensors, the researchers said, feed into the brainstem, and the resulting slow brain waves produce the state of relaxed alertness. The ideal is six breaths per minute, note researchers.
What if You’re Chronically Anxious?
If you suspect that you may have an anxiety disorder and deep breathing only works sometime to help dampen the anxiety level you feel, you may benefit from seeking treatment from a doctor or mental health professional. Symptoms of chronic anxiety include, but are not limited to, exhaustion and fatigue, constantly worrying, sleep problems, decreased or increased appetite, digestion problems, difficulty concentrating, and lack of energy. There’s no shame involved in asking for help to learn how to overcome anxiety. While medication and talk therapy may be necessary as you work through how to effectively cope with anxiety, deep breathing and other therapies will likely also be incorporated into the healing plan.