Anxiety Diagram by Veronica Walsh

Anxiety Diagram by Veronica Walsh


Anxiety is normal. It forces us to jump into action when we are most at risk. It allows us to achieve great feats of strength and stamina. It keeps us alive.

And when anxiety is too easily triggered, so that fear arises in ways that are disproportionate to actual risk, it can feel like torture.

There are many theories that suggest different ways to tackle anxiety, but they all have one thing in common: before any fancy therapy can be done, you have to be able to breathe.

When I was first learning about anxiety reduction techniques, I have to admit that I found it so simple that it seemed silly. Breathing? That is something we have all been practicing since our first minutes on this planet. How can it really be the solution to overwhelming anxiety?

It turns out, though, that returning to our breath in moments of crisis that it is a skill we could all benefit from practicing some more, and it happens to be supported by science.

The secret lies in two complementary, mostly automatic systems that we each possess. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activates when we need to get into gear: heartbeat accelerates, perspiration increases, breathing rate increases, and more. The SNS is on the front lines when anxiety kicks in, getting the body ready for battle. The other system, though, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), is responsible for our body’s activities when we are at rest. It coordinates sleep, digestion, and lowers our heart and resting breathing rates.

Usually, these systems function together without our conscious knowledge, which is good, because it would be quite overwhelming to manage all of that while also trying to exist in the world. However, there are ways that we can actually interact with these automatic systems in quite effective ways. If you purposefully think about something stressful, for instance, you may notice the SNS waking up as your sweat glands become active and heart rate increases – you are actively at the helm of your own nervous system when you do that.

And here’s the best part: If you breathe deeply, slowly, and consciously, you can purposefully engage the PNS too, calming the SNS’s activation. You should notice your heart rate starting to return to normal, and the feeling of spiraling thoughts slowing down. The more you practice, the more easily you can consciously engage the PNS, eventually giving you a sense of mastery over your anxiety.

As a human, anxiety will always come and go, and though it is necessary to our survival, it will never be fun, especially when it shows up at inopportune times. If you find yourself feeling anxious in situations where you know, consciously, that there is no danger, you now have a tool: Just breathe.

More Information about the Benefits of Breathing: