Anxiety comes from our fight/flight/freeze/faint system. This system is useful, even vital, for when we are in situations where we perceive there is danger; it is also known as our "Sympathetic Nervous System." Imagine the necessity of such a survival system (survival "instinct") at the beginning of mankind, when we needed to go out and hunt (and survive while doing so) every day in order to eat. There might not be as many every day situations like that for most people nowadays, but anxiety can certainly be useful. However, what do we do when anxiety seems to consume us in a situation where it shouldn't? Where we know we are "overreacting" to something, or "overthinking" an issue, or getting ourselves "too worked up" over "nothing?"
ACTIVATING YOUR ANXIETY SYSTEM
Nowadays, our anxiety is mostly activated by feelings, emotions, behaviors, or environment. For example, if you have ever felt scared while walking down a dark alley, next time you are about to walk down another dark alley, your anxiety system will most likely be activated by this situational/environmental trigger. This is a good thing.
ANXIETY SYSTEM IS ON - HOW DO YOU FEEL?
Activating your anxiety system means that your heart is overworking (palpitations) to send blood and oxygen to the organs that produce adrenaline, and to your brain to help you make the right decision (fight, flight, freeze, or faint).
Your hands may feel cold, but you're sweating. You may feel short of breath, as you feel your heart beating in your neck! Some people feel dizzy or get headaches! Whatever symptoms you have, notice them, and try not to panic.
HOW TO DEACTIVATE YOUR ANXIETY SYSTEM
So what do you do if this is one of those situations where you feel you are being overly anxious, where your anxiety doesn't seem to be helping and might in fact be a bit debilitating (your anxiety just doesn't seem to "fit" the situation). First and foremost, make sure your anxiety system has indeed "misfired" and that you are NOT actually in danger. Remember, your anxiety system protects you - it's your survival system!
When you've assessed your situation and know that you need to "calm down" see if you can find a place to proceed with this very simple breathing exercise, it has helped thousands of people...
PRACTICING THE FOUR-SQUARE-BREATHING
This basic breathing exercise helps to deactivate your anxiety system by delivering more oxygen to your brain, relaxing your heart, decreasing or stopping the production of adrenaline, and returning to your baseline system ("Parasympathetic Nervous System"). So, let's start:
STEP 1: Breathe in for 4 seconds, as you count 1 to 4 (1...2...3...4)
STEP 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds, count 1 to 4 (1...2...3...4)
STEP 3: Breathe out for 4 seconds, as you count 1 to 4 (1...2...3...4)
STEP 4: Hold your breath for 4 more seconds, count 1 to 4 (1...2...3...4)
That's it! This simple FOUR-SQUARE-BREATHING exercise can help deactivate your sympathetic system and help you to "calm down" a bit and feel much better.
EXTRA: Repeat the FOUR-SQUARE-BREATHING system for more than 4 times and that's the beginning of a meditation!
IMPORTANT: Many times anxiety needs to be treated with therapy - this exercise is for immediate help (like a band-aid) - not a cure for chronic anxiety.
Dr. Rosana Marzullo-Dove, PsyD