September 01, 2021
Blow Your Anxiety Over With One Breath
Let’s delve into what anxiety is, and the difference between being anxious and having anxiety.
So what is it?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease and is normally about an event or something that we're a little bit uncertain about. Everyone can probably reflect on a time when we perhaps felt something like this, but this was potentially just an episode of feeling anxious or having worry as opposed to having anxiety in the more clinical sense. Anxiety, however, is extremely prevalent as a mental health condition. It is in fact the most prevalent mental health condition, meaning anxiety is suffered more than any other mental health condition. 1 in 13 people experience anxiety worldwide, meaning they experience anxiety in a more clinical and chronic form as opposed to just fear or worry.
How can I tell the difference between being anxious and having anxiety?
To look deeper at this, let’s use an example. Imagine you have an exam coming up. Some of you might have the exam tomorrow, and others might have the big exam in six weeks. Obviously, the people who have this big exam the next day are probably going to be a little bit on edge about whether they have done enough work, are they well prepared and the like. However, if someone has excessive fear or worry about something that's going to happen in six weeks time, that is considered more of an anxiety presentation. So it's something that's going to be quite long-standing and it tends to be more vague (e.g. uncertainty around the situation as a whole, as opposed to having a more specific worry about something that's more acute).
Some of the other big differences between being anxious and having anxiety are it’s symptoms. Being anxious is typically only in our head being our thoughts or concerns. Whereas anxiety can have more profound effects on the rest of our body. People often don't know what it is that really triggers them or it's an ongoing thing like work where there's no exact end point. Being anxious can help us, as it evokes a stress response acting as a protective mechanism that can help us think more clearly and make better decisions in real time. Whereas, anxiety doesn't quite have the similar benefits because the stress response hangs around for a longer period of time, which can obviously have detrimental effects on our physiology and overall health.
The effects of anxiety on the body
Anxiousness is naturally easier to control than anxiety. The stress response mentioned earlier is our activation of the sympathetic element of our autonomic nervous system. So when we are anxious, this is quite short-lived and isn’t prolonged. Whereas clinical anxiety has an ongoing stress response, and that's where we start suffering from prolonged effects. The effects include increased cortisol, glucose levels, blood pressure, heart rate and other factors that can lead to harm on your metabloic health. All things we want to try and avoid!
Control the controllable
Emma Marie is a psychology consultant that works in the elite sporting realm with those that suffer from performance anxiety. The principle that she mentions in her work can be naturally applied to everyday situations that we would all suffer from. So regardless of whether you are suffering from anxiousness or more clinical anxiety, the main thing that is involved with both is that there is something we feel we can't control. Emma speaks about separating what we can and can't control into two different parts - what we can control as being our “A game” and what we can't control as being our “B game”. To practise this, she suggests to think of times where you may have been quite uneasy or anxious about something, and writing down the things that you could control, and then writing down the things that you couldn’t control during that time.
As humans we are wired to draw focus towards what we can't control. So using our previously used example of that exam, we tend to worry about things like “what are the questions are going to be”, “am I going to run out of time”, “is my pen going to run out of ink”, all things that we can't control. If we narrow our focus onto what we can control (making sure we get a good night's sleep before the test, doing all of the study that we need to, packing spare pens and pencils), then our mind is going to gravitate towards more positive thinking which is going to help our performance, in this analogy being the exam. This principle can be applied to so many scenarios, whether it's at work, babysitting grandchildren, a sporting event - where there is anxiety, there can be a way to combat it!
Using your breath as your most valuable tool
Why is breathing encouraged as a response to these episodes of anxiety or worry? It's because when we take a nice deep breath, we increase what's called our vagal tone. Our vagal nerve starts in the brain stem just behind our ears and it travels down the side of our neck, across the chest and down into the abdomen. Vagus is the latin word for “wandering”, and perfectly demonstrated by the nerve fibers from this vagus nerve spreading throughout our body, networking our brain with our stomach, digestive tract and a lot of other vital organs such as our kidneys. The vagal system regulates our “rest and repair” state ( parasympathetic nervous system), so that's why we want to try and increase our vagal tone by activating our vagal nerve as much as we can.
When we do suffer from worry or fear and our stress response (“fight or flight” response) is happening, we want to make sure that we get a big deep breath in to calm ourselves down in that moment. As soon as we do that, our bodies are going to respond. Furthermore, we need to make sure this breath is nice and slow. To get into our full parasympathetic or relaxation mode, the rate is 5-7 breaths per minute (about one breath every 10 seconds). Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is encouraged as it makes it a more conscious process. As we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, our body naturally starts calming down. Using our previous example, we're not thinking about what the question on the test is going to be, but we're focusing on our breath. As we continue to breathe slower and get the body into our parasympathetic mode, muscles will relax and our worries and anxieties tend to dissipate.
Our oxygen supply to the cells in our body will increase and we get an endorphin release, those feel-good hormones which make us feel better. Obviously the more breaths the better, but a lot of us might not feel comofrtable doing this in their immediate environment, nor do we have the option to go away and take a number of big deep breaths. Emma points out that we can still achieve similar results with just one breath. This method can be applied in so many different contexts and hopefully seems achieveable to implement into your everyday life to manage your fear, worry or overall anxiety.
If you do have any further questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch with any of us here in the clinic as we are here to help you with all of these things.