In this post, I’m going to share a 4 minute exercise that will soothe your anxiety. I do it myself several times a day whether I need it or not. Then I use it at those times when I feel jangly. I use it with my clients too. It works. So I’m sharing it with you.
Before I do, let me give you some background. When you understand why it works, you’ll be more committed to trying it for yourself.
It’s not some psychological theory. It’s how your body works.
All day long, your body has been doing things. It has been beating your heart. It has been digesting your food. It has been releasing chemicals into your blood stream.
You didn’t ask it to do any of this stuff, and it didn’t consult with your thinking brain before doing them.
Imagine if you had to decide to beat your heart every time it needed to beat. “Hey, shall we beat this heart?” Umm, sure.
A moment later. “Shall we beat it again?”
And so on.
You’d never get anything done.
So it makes sense that your thinking brain isn’t in the loop.
In fact, even if we wanted it, we don’t have any direct control over lots of it either. If I want to scratch my nose I can move my arm and my fingers to make sure it gets scratched.
But for lots of your body, you can’t do that. You can’t just decide to release adrenaline, or speed up your heart beat.
The body does its own thing, independently of us.
The Body When Anxious
This is particularly apparent when we get anxious. It doesn’t ask us if we should become anxious. Our nervous system acts like a well honed surveillance system.
If it spots something it considers dangerous, it moves into red alert. No consultation. It happens fast, for good reason.
If it’s a real and present danger, like a sabre toothed tiger, do you really want it to have a conference with your thinking brain? No, you want it to run like hell instantly.
Speed is of the essence when faced with danger. Your anxiety is your body doing its job, and doing it well.
Your nervous system is there to protect you. If it spots a pattern that seems potentially dangerous, it will kick in. It’s unlikely to be a sabre toothed tiger these days. Instead, it may be your boss frowning at you. The bill that lands on your mat. Maybe even a scary thought you’ve had.
The pattern will be different for everyone. But your nervous system is there to protect you.
If it senses something as dangerous then it makes things happen in your body.
Your heart speeds up. You begin to take in large breaths of air to give you extra oxygen. Blood is sent to your muscles so you are prepared to run or fight. Chemicals are sent through your body to help you escape.
Every time that happens is a sign that your nervous system is working perfectly on behalf of your continued survival.
Anxiety v Actual Danger
The problem is that there is a difference between danger and anxiety. Danger is where you are under threat at this exact moment. Anxiety is where you worry about something that might happen in the future.
“What if the boss fires me?”
“What if I mess up my presentation?”
Your body can’t tell the difference. It just sees some kind of threat and tries to protect you.
So whether you’re faced with a tiger or about to do some public speaking, your body reacts much the same way.
It spots the fear and gives you the physiological tools to deal with it, whether you need them or not.
It’s very helpful to be so hepped up if facing a tiger. It’s not helpful to be in that state when about to give a talk.
Wouldn’t it be good to be able to turn it off again once we had checked out the threat and realised we are not in actual danger?
Turning Off The Anxiety And Restoring To Calm
Unfortunately, we can’t simply tell the heart beat to return to normal. We can’t just tell the body to release different chemicals that would calm us down again.
As stated earlier, the anxious body does its own thing. It knows best, or so it thinks. It doesn’t consult our thinking brain, and it doesn’t take direction from it either.
But there is one thing we can control. It’s like a secret back door into the nervous system. When we take control of this back door, it signals the body to calm down. It returns the body to normal.
The Secret Back Door
I’m talking about breathing. I know it sounds too simple, but stick with me. It works. Here’s why.
Your heart doesn’t beat like a metronome. Its speed is changing all the time.
When you breathe in, your heart rate speeds up. When you breathe out, your heart rate slows down again.
This is why, when given a fright, we tend to take in a huge intake of breath. It’s part of the mechanism that begins to speed us up so we are more likely to survive the potential danger.
So if we want our heart rate to fall back to normal, we simply need to breathe out more than we breathe in to slow us down.
Imagine it as a walk. Every second of breathing in moves you backwards a step. Every second of breathing out moves you forward a step.
Breathing out for longer than you breathe in is what would get you moving forwards.
So it is with heart rate.
Every moment you are breathing in speeds it up. Every moment you are breathing out slows it down and makes you calmer.
So the way to return your heart rate back down to normal is to breathe out for longer than you breathe in.
It’s as if we had given the heart and the body a command to calm down, using the breath itself as the keyboard.
Squeezing The Brakes Of Your Nervous System
The other benefit is that it also activates the part of your nervous system that slows you down.
Our nervous system is a bit like a bicycle. We can speed it up with the pedals (which is what happens when anxious or panicky). Or we can slow it down with the brakes.
By changing our breathing in this way, we kick in the vagus nerve which acts as the brake to our nervous system.
With this one simple exercise, we return a sense of calm to the body.
Before I get to the exercise, a few general instructions of how to breathe when doing it.
- Make sure your breathing fills your belly not your chest. This is important. The swelling of your belly will actually touch your vagus nerve and so help activate its calming functions.
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Breathe out through pursed lips, as if you were blowing on hot soup to cool it down.
Here’s the exercise.
1. Check in with your body. How anxious do you feel out of 10? Make a note of the number.
2. Breathe in through the nose for 2 seconds, then breathe out through pursed lips for 10 seconds. (Feel free to sing something on the out breaths if you prefer).
3. Keep doing this for 4 minutes.
4. Check in with your body again. How anxious do you feel now? Check the difference so you know the effect the exercise had.
A Useful Tool To Help
I like to use the Paced Breathing app. Once downloaded you can change the settings.
I set mine for a 4 minute duration.
Then I set the in breath to 2 seconds, the out breath to 10 seconds, and each hold breath setting to zero seconds.
Check Out The Video To Do The Exercise With Me
If you want to skip the explanation and the instructions go to 5m 20s, but they are pretty useful
Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice