Interrupting Anxiety with Deep Breathing

05.03.2018 |

Episode #3 of the course Conquer fear of public speaking by Dr. Paul Harrison


Last lesson, we looked at the autonomic nervous system and how it’s responsible for both fight and flight (sympathetic nervous system response) and rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system response). Today, we’ll look at actions you can take to interrupt the panic cycle, but first, let’s take a second to more closely examine it.


The Panic Cycle

The panic cycle happens when we notice the effects of our sympathetic nervous system (e.g., racing heart, dry mouth, weak knees, etc.) and form a negative (and often inaccurate) conclusion: We assume that because our bodies are responding “negatively,” we must be experiencing panic.

The truth is that even if we are nervous, the side effects of the sympathetic nervous system are completely natural and can be managed. The mistake we often make is to assume that our bodies are out of control, and it’s our reaction to this perceived lack of control that sends us spiraling into a panic loop.

You’ve likely heard this before, but mindfulness is a very effective way to cut off this process at the outset. If we can remove ourselves from the emotional state, evaluate our physical symptoms, and recognize them for what they are (natural side effects of the sympathetic nervous system), then we can overcome them. But how do we initiate mindfulness when entering a panic state?

The answer is to start with one breath.


One Deep Breath

Everyone can manage to remember this, and it’s the first, simplest, and most powerful way to take back control as we prepare to give a speech or presentation. Taking one deep abdominal breath in and out signals the brain that we’re engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. From there, it becomes far easier to manage our mental and emotional, then behavioral, responses, which we’ll discuss later. How can taking one breath be so powerful? It comes down to the mind-body connection.

Simply put, the nerves that carry the signals to the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems reside in different parts of the body. By actively engaging the nerves that connect to the parasympathetic nervous system, we remind the body to balance out the effects of anxiety and rein in our panic responses.

Following from this is the revelation that the nervous system is a two-way street. We can actively influence our nervous system, despite its normally automatic role, by stimulating the areas that play a role in the parasympathetic nervous system and controlling our breathing to reduce heart rate.


Practice: The Power of Breathing

The common denominator of most breathing techniques is that we need to breathe into the stomach area, deeply and slowly. This helps reassure the brain that we are safe and makes us feel calmer.

To ensure that you’re breathing correctly, place your hands on your lower abdomen, just below the belly button.

As you breathe in, feel your abdomen expand. Your shoulders and chest should not be rising and falling now. All the movement should be in your belly and abdomen. It’s an in and out motion, not up and down.

Sit or lay down somewhere comfortable and try ten repetitions of this deep breath. Congratulations! You’ve consciously activated your parasympathetic nervous system!

Disclaimer: Please consult your doctor before attempting breathing exercises, especially if you have pre-existing conditions. Always practice in a safe environment, preferably sitting down. Be careful standing up after breathing, especially if you feel light-headed. This is a normal result of oxygen increases in the body.

Next lesson, we’ll look at how posture affects mindset!


Recommended book

Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History’s Greatest Speakers by James C. Humes


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