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  • A simple antidote to anxiety

    “Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.” – Erma Bombeck

    As a normal human response to uncertainty, worry serves us in important ways. It triggers an assortment of hormones and neurochemicals which are designed to mobilize our forces to get things done, maintain equilibrium or keep us safe.  

    A steady stream of worrisome situations, however, can wear us down physically and mentally as our energy gets depleted.

    These days, we’re more likely to refer to this uncomfortable feeling as anxiety. And there’s pretty good evidence to show that it, along with depression, is on the rise. Whether the threats we perceive are real or imagined hardly matters when our nervous system is hijacked by fear of some kind.

    To be accurate, anxiety is different than worry, at least clinically, as to how it shows up in our head and our body. It is helpful to understand the distinction between the two in knowing whether one ought to consult a professional for medication and/or therapy.

    A few years ago, there was a piece in Psychology Today which described the difference between the two, and it’s worth reading if you or a loved one is struggling with a condition which is treatable.

    Suffice to say that worry and its cousin anxiety show up in our lives often enough that it sure would be nice to know how to respond when they do.,

    Unfortunately, singing Bobby McFerrin’s song, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, may not be enough to will ourselves into a better mindset. It’s a catchy tune, for sure, but it may not always do the trick.

    One strategy which can be helpful when we realize we’re caught in an eddy of worry or anxiety is to learn how to reframe our situation. You know, the modern version of an ancient wisdom which saw crisis as an opportunity; opposite sides of the same coin, so to speak.

    My favorite example of this kind of shifting perspective is one I heard Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University, talk about when describing the advice given to her anxious daughter before a martial arts test by her instructor who told her to “Get your butterflies in flying formation.” Gotta love the imagery.

    Another potential solution to worry and anxiety can be found in the app store. Using guided imagery and breathing techniques, these programs (mobile apps) are designed to help the user get into a more relaxed state, thereby reducing stress. Several of my clients use these apps as an adjunct to our coaching sessions and find them worthwhile. There are many good choices and a few of them are free, so you can’t go wrong in giving them a try.

    And then there’s perhaps the simplest antidote of all to worry and anxiety that I’ve come across in all my years of health and wellness coaching. It also happens to be one of the most accessible. It has to do with how we breathe.

    Because breathing happens automatically, below the threshold of our awareness, we don’t need to remember to inhale and exhale 20,000+ times a day. Unfortunately, our high stress culture has a way of inhibiting optimal breathing and we’re usually unaware that our breathing is defective much of the time.

    In one of the most useful (as well as entertaining) non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor sheds light on this fascinating subject. Bottom line: there’s much to be gained by occasionally taking our respiration off auto pilot and bringing conscious effort to this essential function.

    There are more takeaways from the book than can be adequately addressed here. But I’ll share a very condensed description of two of them which struck me because of the profound impact they can have on worry and anxiety and stress in general, not to mention an assortment of other medical conditions.

    The first of these has to do with nasal breathing. As obvious as it may be that our nose is for breathing (yes, other things too), the truth is that this organ is often underutilized by many of us.

    Breathing through the mouth is to some extent normal but by no means should it be the primary channel for exchanging air. The nose is far superior in its ability to filter the 2,000 gallons of air which come into our lungs each day.

    As complementary as nose and mouth breathing may be for respiration, by employing our nose more of the time, we’re more likely to activate our parasympathetic nervous system which, among other things, is associated with the so-called relaxation response, i.e., the antidote we’re seeking.

    There are plenty of nasal breathing techniques, many of which have been around for thousands of years. With a little bit of effort, it is possible to learn a few simple ones which can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, heart rate and our overall sense of well-being.

    The second takeaway from the book has to do with the rate at which we breathe. Normal respiration is in the range of 12-16 breaths per minute. When we’re anxious or worried, the rate can increase, as that other nervous system (the sympathetic one) is triggered to summon the resources needed to fight or flee whatever it is we’re perceiving as a threat.

    At such times, if we have the presence of mind to realize that the threat may not be existential, that we’re just being swept along by a river of thoughts, causing needless distress – that would be a good time to work on slowing the pace of our breathing.

    The ideal rate of respiration seems to be 5.5 breaths per minute, which conveniently works out to inhaling for 5.5 seconds, then exhaling for 5.5 seconds. This rhythm also happens to coincide very nicely with of the cadence of our breath when we’re engaged in certain forms of prayer or yoga or meditation or song. It’s wonderfully poetic.

    The next time you notice yourself feeling anxious or worried about an upcoming event or have a generalized anxiety related to the state of our world, or are simply not sure what to do with your overactive mind in the middle of the night – try making the switch to nasal breathing along with focusing on slowing your breathing to a more gentle pace. The results may make you smile and improve your health along the way.