Anxiety is something that affects us all at some point or another in our life – because, in many ways, anxiety is a good thing. It’s the mechanism through which we protect ourselves when something goes wrong. The problem is that it was developed to deal with times when we were being chased down by men on horseback or hunted by tigers, and those aspects are no longer applicable in our society.
In essence, it’s the brain triggering our fight-or-flight response, and it does that by releasing extremely powerful chemicals into the body – the main ones being adrenaline and cortisol. So, it’s an incredibly powerful psycho-physiological experience. For example, the blood is redirected from the organs out to the muscles (because they need blood for fighting or running), our muscles tense up in anticipation – so we can get the shakes or become fidgety. Our heart-rate and breathing rate also increases to increase the flow of oxygen through the body. We also sweat more, but it’s ‘greasy’ sweat so that we become slippery and we’ll have a better chance of slipping away if something is trying to grab hold of us. Interestingly, men notice that they sleep on yellow pillow-cases when they’re experiencing anxiety. We can also experience poor sleep, and we tend to always be on high alert – we’re always on the look-out for threats and danger. So, we can be quite irritable, and we won’t like things that move or loud noises, because the brain interprets both of those as potential threats.
As it turns out, we need pretty well all of those things in order to be anxious – so you can think of it as a house of cards. As luck would have it, we have control over one of them – our breathing. So, if we can control our breathing we can reduce our anxiety levels quite quickly.
When we’re anxious, we’re breathing a little bit more deeply and a little bit more rapidly. So, the oxygen level in our blood increases – which we don’t want unless we’re exerting ourselves. We can bring it down using a simple technique called 4-2-6 breathing. We breathe in for a count of 4, hold our breath for a count of 2, and breathe out for a count of 6. So, out of a total count of 12, we’re only taking in oxygen for a third of the time. That quickly brings your blood-gas levels back into balance. If you do that, your feelings of anxiety and panic decrease. You can test this if you like by sitting or lying down and over-breathing until you feel a bit dizzy. Then, do the 4-2-6 breathing and notice how quickly your anxiety reduces. Just remember to make it as close to your normal rate of breathing as possible.