Breathing exercises are some of the most important anxiety management exercises. We will return to the connection between anxiety and breathing next week, but you should already start familiarising yourself with it first-hand and experientially.
For the next exercise, reserve a moment during which you can be undisturbed for around 5–10 minutes. You will need a mat or other surface on which you can lie on your back.
Contemplate: How did belly breathing feel? How could this exercise help you in terms of anxiety regulation and maintaining your wellbeing?
Physical symptoms of anxiety
Momentary anxiety is necessary for life, which is why we have developed the ability to become anxious. Anxiety is like a general alarm of the body. It lets us know when something is wrong and prepares us for action. Momentary anxiety improves our performance and prompts us to protect ourselves against a potential threat.
Our body reacts to threatening situations based on our assessment of the threat. In a distressing situation, it prepares to fight or flee if necessary. When faced with an extreme threat, the body may completely freeze. Watch the video below to learn what kind of physical symptoms the ‘fight or flight’ state or complete freezing can cause.
Anxiety in the body
When we enter a ‘fight or flight’ state, our logical thinking and judgement cease to function, rendering us unable to rationally calm ourselves. This is why physical anxiety management methods are useful for most – they enable us to calm our body down and return our attention from our anxiety to the present moment.
The most typical symptoms of anxiety are fearful anticipation, worry, restlessness and tension, concentration difficulties, irritation, fatigue and various cognitive cycles and distortions. In addition to these, anxiety is associated with a variety of physical symptoms, such as:
- a more frequent need to urinate
- various stomach issues: constipation or diarrhoea
- numbness, prickling or weakness of the hands or feet
- muscle tension
- an elevated and irregular heart rate
- shaking, tremors
- sensations in the chest: feeling a band around the chest, tightness of the chest
- difficulties breathing
- feeling a lump in the throat, a choking sensation
- visual blurring and disturbances
- sensory sensitisation, e.g. intensified skin sensations: tingling or prickling of the scalp
- sensitised hearing: sounds become muddled and feel unusually loud
Many who suffer from anxiety may spend a long time seeking help for various physical symptoms before their symptoms are identified to be related to anxiety. Some physical anxiety symptoms may feel surprising, but they make sense when we examine the physiology of anxiety.
Assignment: My physical anxiety symptoms
Anxiety may feel and look different for every person. They affect the person’s thoughts, emotions, behaviour and bodily functions alike and may manifest themselves as worrying, feeling restless, or nervousness, for example. Anxiety involves bodily agitation, the strong physical symptoms of which may cause the person to suspect a physical illness.
Take a moment to examine what your specific anxiety is like. Download the exercise below.
The body’s stress level and activity are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system plays a key role in anxiety and its mitigation as well.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system, which is active when a person is alert, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is active when the person is at rest.
When a person faces increasing external challenges and demands, activation of the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system increases. The person’s own worries, internal demands and expectations also make the sympathetic nervous system rev up. We often call this state stress and may feel it as anxiety.
When the level of activation increases even further, we often end up in a state of hyper-arousal that is sure to make us feel anxious. In particular, a feeling of being unable or not having the time to do anything about the situation increases our sense of insecurity and, by extension, anxiety.
A state of hyper-arousal and strong sympathetic nervous system activation does not always require a situation that threatens our life or safety. If we have learned to fear certain situations for one reason or another, our body and mind are quick to become hyper-aroused, even if the situation appears ordinary to others.
Some people are born with a more easily activated sympathetic nervous system. It activates more readily and rapidly and is more difficult to calm down. Traumatic past experiences also sensitise the sympathetic nervous system. In such cases, the alarm system warns of a threat and the body’s stress reactions start even though there is no real threat.
Whereas worry and fear activate the sympathetic nervous system, relaxation and gratification activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Accordingly, many psychophysical anxiety management methods are based on activating the parasympathetic nervous system, as it calms the person down and decreases activity in the sympathetic nervous system.
The brain is very efficient in forming connections, and its operation is characterised by networking. When a region of the brain is activated, it immediately transmits information to many other regions. Because of this networking, sensory information, thoughts and physiological functions of the body are closely connected.
For example, when a distressing memory pops up in our mind, it activates the same physiological reactions that occurred during the events of the memory. Conversely, our bodily functions can trigger memories, emotions and thoughts.
The threat network of the brain connects the cerebral cortex to the limbic system underneath, which includes regions such as the amygdala. The amygdala is often called the fear centre or the emotional centre, as it is the most efficient in processing emotional information. In a threat situation, the fear centre sends messages in many directions, connecting the autonomic nervous system, the sensory cortex, the brain regions that trigger flight or freezing, and the brain region that regulates the startle reflex.
The threat network prepares the body to defend itself, and its activity is a normal and useful reaction in threat situations. However, different anxiety disorders can involve excessive or lacking activity of the defence network.
The vagus nerve, also known as the wandering nerve, is the longest cranial nerve pair and the most important nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagus is Latin for ‘wandering,’ which illustrates how widespread the vagus nerve is in the body. The nerve goes from the brain stem all the way to the intestines and back.
The vagus nerve is the most important nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated involuntarily during rest. Its key function is to provide the brain with information about the body so that the brain can start different regulatory measures when needed. According to some estimates, the vagus nerve is involved in the regulation of up to 80% of all parasympathetic functions. It conveys information to the brain about aspects such as the heart rate, the respiratory rate and the secretion of stomach acid.
Try this: Activating the vagus nerve has a calming effect. As the vagus nerve is connected to the muscles of the larynx, you can easily activate it by humming, singing, making the ‘ng’ sound or gurgling, for example.
Exercises for the week
Great, you have reached the end of the first week’s information section! Now it is important that you start practising. This week’s exercises are listed below. Download the monitoring form for keeping track of your practising and contemplating on things. You should reserve five minutes for practising every day. For example, try to make vagus nerve exercises a part of your everyday routines and reserve a moment of belly breathing after dinner or before going to sleep, etc.
- Belly breathing
- Activating the vagus nerve by humming, singing, making the ‘ng’ sound or gurgling