Taming the Fight or Flight Response

Using Breath Work to Ease Anxiety

Fight Or Flight
Westend61 / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

What do you feel in your body when you feel anxious? Usually, you may notice a rapid heartbeat, shallow, rapid breathing and tense muscles.

These physical reactions are the result of the "fight or flight" response system, an ingenious mechanism. When a person senses something perceived as potentially threatening, a number of physiological changes take place in the body. The brain sends warning signals through the central nervous system.

The adrenal glands begin producing hormones (adrenalin and noradrenalin) which cause the heart to beat faster and breathing to become more rapid. Muscles tense and pupils dilate. The person's body is getting ready to do one of two things:

  1. Confront the threat and deal with it, or
  2. Get as far away from the threat as quickly as possible.

This fight or flight response is appropriate and can actually be life saving when there is an actual and imminent physical threat. For example, when the driver in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes, you need to react quickly (and without a lot of thought) in order to prevent an accident.

However, some people have an early warning system that's a little too sensitive. For these people, the fight or flight responses are triggered by events that would be ignored by many others. This hypersensitivity can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • An inherited imbalance in brain hormones, as in anxiety and bipolar disorders
  • A history of verbal or physical abuse in childhood
  • Other post-traumatic stress disorders

It's exhausting and uncomfortable to spend so much time in a state of high alert. In addition, there are possible physical consequences to feeling stressed all the time, including high blood pressure, tension or migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and TMJ (temporomandibular joint) syndrome.

What can we do? How do we discharge all that energy when we realize there really is no danger? After all, the fight or flight reaction is an involuntary physical response to a situation. It might not be possible to issue a mental directive to our adrenal glands to tell them to stop producing adrenalin and noradrenalin.

However, breathing exercises provide a relatively easy tool for coming down from this heightened state of alert. Some of the relief comes just from taking a moment to pause and notice what's going on in our bodies.

NOTE: You might find it helpful to discharge some physical energy to relieve muscular tension before beginning a breathing exercise. See the tips from Easing Anxiety Naturally. After you've released some muscular tension, try the following breath exercise.

Three-Part Breath

  1. Find a place where it's quiet.
  2. Sit in a straight back chair with both feet on the floor or lie on the floor with a straight spine.
  3. Begin inhaling by expanding the abdomen (let it inflate like a balloon), then move the breath into your rib cage and, finally, all the way into your upper chest.
  1. Exhale by reversing this action; begin at your collarbones and exhale down through your rib cage and into your abdomen. Contract your abdominal muscles as you finish exhaling.
  2. You might find it helpful to lightly place your right hand on your abdomen and your left hand on your rib cage to help direct the breath on its journey.
  3. Begin by practicing for one minute and then gradually lengthen the practice to five minutes.

This technique helps to eliminate shallow chest breathing and encourages full exhalation and inhalation.

Once again, there's no need to push yourself or judge yourself for being anxious. The idea is simply to be quiet for a short time and notice your breath.

DISCLAIMER: This information is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a physician. The reader should consult a physician before starting any health or exercise program. Do not ignore any physical distress that occurs during or after exercise since it may indicate a health problem which requires the attention of a physician or other health care professional.

Continue Reading