Calm Down Using Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing
What can we do to control our nervous system and calm down when anxiety and panic strikes?
When we panic (or have an anxiety attack) a number of things happen to us. And we should know that in panic and high
anxiety the symptoms that we experience are the same. The difference lies in the build up: anxiety usually builds up
slowly, getting stronger and stronger until it becomes a full-blown attack. Panic occurs instantly, usually in response to
a clear and imminent threat or danger. An anxiety attack is, in effect, mild panic.
In both anxiety and panic we become jumpy and jittery, on-edge, charged with energy, ready for action. We feel 'in a rush',
needing to do something. This can also be seen at times when we are not anxious or panicked, but actually in a rush, for
example when we are late for something. In such situations we often feel anxious and 'panicky'.
This charge of energy within our body comes from two main things: our breathing and our heartbeat – they both become
considerably faster. We breathe faster to get more oxygen into the bloodstream to feed the main muscles (arms, chest, legs)
for action and the heart speeds up to get this oxygen around our body to these muscles more quickly.
The problem is that we are not actually in danger and since we are not running away or fighting to use up all the excess
oxygen (fuel) it starts to accumulate in the bloodstream.
When we are breathing too fast (hyperventilating) it can feel as if there is not enough oxygen (which makes us
more panicky). However, the reverse is true – we actually have too much oxygen. For although Carbon
Dioxide (CO2) is a waste gas that we breathe out, we need a certain amount of it in our
bloodstream to be able to use up the oxygen we have. When we hyperventilate we end up with an excess of oxygen that we cannot
actually use. Hence it can feel like we don't have enough oxygen.
This 'rush' – this charge of energy for action – lies at the heart of anxiety attacks and panic. And when there
is no real danger or threat (one we would need the 'rush' to escape from), in order to calm down we need to slow down and
slow our body down.
The one way that we can actually do this is by slowing down our breathing. Here, we can positively influence
our nervous system by the physical action we take. By learning to breathe more slowly and deeply we can calm down.
And it's not just the speed of our breathing that is important but also how deeply we breathe. Fast breathing from the top of the chest
causes that imbalance of Oxygen to Carbon Dioxide in the blood which can lead to further panic inducing symptoms. (This is
why some people breathe into paper bags – to breathe in the CO2 they are breathing
By replacing the fast, upper-chest breathing of anxiety and panic with deep slow breathing, where we breathe from the diaphragm
(the muscular wall separating the lungs from the stomach) we redress the oxygen-CO2
balance in the body and promote a feeling of calmness.
Diaphragmatic breathing is known as eupnea. It is a natural and relaxed form of breathing found in all mammals
whenever they are in a state of relaxation, i.e. when there is no danger in their environment. With deep diaphragmatic
breathing we consciously control our breathing.
Try deep diaphragmatic breathing:-
1. Take a deep breath in through your nose for a slow count of four (imagine the air filling your
stomach, not lungs, and feel it expand)
2. Hold for a slow count of four
3. Breathe out through your mouth for a slow count of four (imagine your stomach pushing the air out)
4. Hold for a slow count of four
5. Repeat 3 or 4 times, no more
How do you feel?
With practice you can use this technique to calm down in those times you feel anxious or panicky where there is no real
A very important thing to realise about the above is that knowing what is happening and why dramatically increases the power
of the technique. Just telling someone who is panicking to breathe more slowly and deeply doesn't have the same
Once we know what is happening and how the remedy works we can begin to take control.
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The Collins English Dictionary describes anxiety as "a state of uneasiness or tension caused by apprehension of possible
misfortune, danger etc."
And to be anxious is to be "worried and tense".
Latin anxietas gave anxiety in English; the base is Latin anxius, from angere 'to choke'
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