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By Caroline Fleck

About this blog: I am a clinical psychologist, mother, and wife committed to using my life to help the lives of those around me. In addition to seeing clients in my private practice, I contribute to various training and research initiatives in cli...  (More)

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Managing Anxiety One Deep Breath at a Time

Uploaded: Feb 15, 2015
Something triggers you. In response, your heart starts to pound, thoughts race, and muscles tense. If you are really attuned to your body, you might notice that your breathing has become shallow, and your stomach has tightened. You are, to put it bluntly, stressed out.The experience is common and familiar to us all. Stress, and the way the body responds to it, is universal.

What can be unique, however, is the way you respond to your body when it's responding to stress. In other words, if upon noticing that you are distressed, you do certain things to decrease physiological arousal, your ability to manage that stress will likely improve.

This is particularly the case with work and relationship stress, which often require higher cognitive processing ("mental bandwidth") in order to be resolved. That's because the physiological dysregulation we experience in reaction to stress is actually adaptive and helpful when the source of stress is something that requires low-level cognitive processing, and simple responses. If confronted with a lion in the jungle, I don't need to reflect upon how the lion is feeling, remember his favorite sources of prey, or attempt to take the lion's perspective. What I need to do is simple - either attack the lion (fight) or run away (flight).

Research confirms that introducing low level stress actually increases performance on simple tasks like estimation (Falk & Bindra, 1954), but hurts performance on tasks that require higher cognitive functioning such as public speaking and mental arithmetic (see Giesbrecht, Arnett, Vela, & Bristow, 1993; Lovallo, 1997).

Unfortunately, the stress we encounter at work and in our relationships generally requires higher cognitive functioning in order to be successfully resolved. If we needed to either attack or run away from our bosses, we'd be in great shape. But if we need to process their feedback and respond intelligently, being physiologically dysregulated isn't likely to help.

Here's where self-soothing becomes critical. Self-soothing is exactly what it sounds like - it's doing things to soothe yourself. Specifically, it's engaging in behaviors that are likely to decrease physiological arousal.

To do this, you must first be able to identify when you are physiologically dysregulated. Fortunately, there are apps for that. My favorite is the the free Azumio Heart Rate Monitor for smartphones. For most people, a heart-rate of over 85 means that you are physiologically dysregulated to the extent that it will interfere with higher cognitive functioning; however, I've noticed much variation around this. I suggest determining your own baseline by measuring your heart rate throughout the day when you are not distressed. If your heart rate is 5-10 bpm above this baseline when you are feeling upset, you are likely getting into the territory of physiological flooding and should begin self-soothing.

Self-soothing can take many forms. Regardless of the form it takes, the aim remains the same - to decrease physiological arousal. Unfortunately, most of the ways in which we become physiologically dysregulated are automatic: our pupils dilate, heart rate increases, palms begin to sweat, and so on. These processes cannot be consciously controlled and operate through somewhat of a feedback loop: as your heart rate increases, your pupils become increasingly dilated, your breathing more shallow, etc.

Fortunately, not all of these physiological processes are outside of your control. Your breathing is perhaps the most obvious point of entry into the stress response feedback loop. Try placing one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. As you inhale, fill up your stomach with air like a balloon while keeping your chest still. As you exhale, allow your stomach to collapse while still keeping your chest still. This technique forces you to use your diaphragm, rather than your chest, to breathe. Diaphragmatic breathing tells the body that you are at ease. If done correctly and for several minutes, the rest of your nervous system will start to regulate as well - your heart rate will decrease and muscles will relax. If you are new to diaphragmatic breathing, you might experiment with the free smartphone application Breathe 2 Relax.

Another quick way to regulate your system is to submerge your face in freezing cold water to trigger the "mammalian dive reflex." When the face is submerged in cold water, heart rate decreases by 10 to 25 percent. This reflex developed so that we could conserve oxygen and stay underwater longer. The significant reduction in heart rate triggered by the dive reflex regulates the other components of the body's stress response including respiration and perspiration. For an adorable example of how this works, check out the following YouTube clip.

Again, it doesn't much matter how you go about self-soothing, so long as your method results in an actual reduction in physiological arousal. You will likely be able to feel a shift towards regulation if the technique you are using is working; experientially, you'll feel like you are "calming down." If you are unsure, try checking your heart rate before and after a self soothing technique to measure its effect.

Learning how to effectively self-soothe is one of my top ten happiness factors for one simple reason: stress is ubiquitous. If you are alive, you will experience distress and dysregulation at some point. If you are alive in the modern age in which attacks by lions are rare, but having to think on your feet is common, knowing how to physiologically regulate yourself is invaluable.
What is it worth to you?


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Feb 18, 2015 at 10:47 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

This is an extremely helpful and practical article, Carolyn. I also thought so about the previous one on psychology of nutrition.

Please keep up the good work, your blogs are a valuable addition to the Embarcadero digital media, the quality stands out.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Caroline Fleck, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 18, 2015 at 2:18 pm

Caroline Fleck is a registered user.

Thanks so much for the positive feedback Max! I'm really glad you are liking the blog!

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Lauren, a resident of another community,
on Mar 5, 2015 at 9:29 am

Hello again! I really enjoyed this one (as well as the others) because diaphragmatic breathing has become part of my daily life now, and I really am amazed at how well it works. Even when I'm having what I used to think of as uncontrollable symptoms such as heart palpitations or tightness in my chest due to anxiety. I used to just try to wait it out which then made me more anxious and usually caused them to last longer. Now when I feel that way I lay down and do diaphragmatic breathing until it subsides, which usually happens in less than 5 minutes. I've even learned how to do it standing or sitting in a 'non-obvious' way like on the subway or in class. It is probably one of the most valuable things I've learned in therapy so far. As far as the 'mammalian dive reflex' I have never heard of that but will definitely try it out.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Caroline Fleck, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Mar 5, 2015 at 10:49 am

Caroline Fleck is a registered user.

Thanks for the endorsement of diaphragmatic breathing Lauren! I totally agree that this can be a transformative skill once you get the hang of it.

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