At lunch yesterday, I was discussing with a friend the increase of people struggling with anxiety — particularly anxiety attacks– in today’s culture. We were speculating as to the reasons behind this trend. Perhaps it is because we have a younger generation who is used to getting what they want, when they want and who don’t know how to respond to failure or disappointment. Perhaps it is because we have communicated to older generations that they are somehow dated and no longer matter causing middle aged people, predominately women, and the young-old generation (55-75) to fear aging because they feel like they no longer have a purpose….
Whatever the contributing factors, the fact remains that anxiety cases are on the rise, particularly among females.
Now for a quick lesson on brain functioning. The amygdala is the one of most primitive parts of the brain. The amygdala serves as an alarm system for the brain notifying the mind of danger. The problem is that the amygdala notifies the body of the perceived threat of danger meaning the threat may or may not be real. For example, you may walk into a room and see a snake on the floor. Your amygdala kicks in and you jump back.
The frontal lobe, however, controls executive functioning. It is the rational, logical part of the brain. In a healthy situation, the frontal lobe is able to differentiate between real danger and false alarms. It is the frontal lobe that notifies the rest of the brain that what you see is a rubber snake and not a threat. As a result, your heart rate slows and you laugh, breathing a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, for many people their amygdala takes over and screams “Danger! Danger!” and the message never reaches the frontal lobe. People tend to practice fight, flight or freeze. In an anxiety attack, the bodily systems have a panicked reaction to the perceived threat (real or imaginary) and renders the person into somewhat of a paralyzed state (metaphorically speaking).
So what is a person to do? Antidepressants often help with anxiety symptoms, but research shows that during a panic attack there is a decrease in the blood flow to the frontal lobe, thus reducing its capacity to rationally deal with the fear. By taking slow, deep breaths a person increases the flow of oxygen through the blood stream into the frontal lobe, thus calming the anxiety symptoms and allowing the person to once again think logically and rationally.
Even though breathing is second nature to us, practicing deep breathing when anxious takes practice. I often tell clients to set a timer for two minutes twice daily and to practice deep breathing (always hold the exhale longer than the inhale). Doing this trains the brain to breathe deeply when feeling threatened or anxious. You will be more likely to remember to breathe deeply when you are anxious if you practice regularly.
So the next time you feel like your heart is going to beat out of your chest, your palms are sweaty and you can’t breathe due to anxiety slow down and take deep several breaths…Breathe in…Breathe out…Repeat until symptoms subside.
*This is a form of psychotherapy recommended for anxiety. As with any physiological symptoms, check with your primary care physician to rule out any medical conditions that might be contributing to your symptoms.