Breathing comes naturally and sometimes my clients will remind me of this when I suggest they try some breathing.  The wonderful thing about breathing is yes, it does come naturally, but it can also be under our conscious control.  It is the most natural thing in the world and it is an easy and free way to cope with anxiety.  What’s not to love about breathing?

Why breathing works is described below, together with practical techniques to try.

How the Brain Works

The easiest way to understand what happens to us with anxiety is to imagine our bodies as they were when humans first evolved.  Survival was the name of the game.  All the other functions of our bodies are unnecessary if we are being eaten!  Therefore the body has evolved first and foremost to protect itself.

What are called the “executive functions” of the brain – the part that thinks consciously and reasons – evolved later than the parts of the brain that respond to threat.

Importantly, the primitive, subconscious part of the brain reacts more quickly to messages than the thinking part. It decides whether there is a threat to our survival before our conscious thinking is activated.  That means we may already be moving by the time we start thinking!

The best way to illustrate this is with the following examples:

  • If you touch something hot, your hand will move fractionally before the thought “that’s hot”
  • You may see a coiled snake – and then realise it is in fact a coiled rope

When the brain detects threat it triggers the body’s fight or flight response.  Stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – are released, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and the rate of breathing.

Under normal circumstances, the executive part of the brain provides a balance to the stress response.  It observes what is going on, predicts what will happen next, and makes a conscious choice.  It controls reactions and it allows people to assess what is happening and to judge if something is a false alarm.

When people have suffered intensely threatening situations – such as trauma – the more primitive part of the brain is very active.  The area of the brain that takes a more watchful view of people’s minute to minute experience is less active.  This means people may be much more reactive to stressful situations.  Their reaction to minor frustrations may seem disproportionate.  They may be very nervous.  They may freeze when touched by someone.

The Role of Childhood Experience

There is increasing recognition that adverse childhood experiences affect the development of the executive function of the brain.  Such childhood experiences include:

  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Having a parent with mental health problems
  • Having a parent suffering from substance abuse or alcoholism
  • Having a parent imprisoned

Such experiences are common – in the USA over 65% of those surveyed had one of these experiences.  Researchers found that the more of these experiences people had suffered, the more likely they were to suffer from both from physical health problems such as heart disease, and mental  health problems including chronic depression, suicidality and substance abuse.  Research into the brain has shown that children’s brains adapt to difficult circumstances making them much more aware of threat, much more reactive to stressful situations, and much less likely to be able to respond calmly to life’s challenges.

When such a high proportion of people have been exposed to threats to their wellbeing as children, is it surprising that many people suffer with anxiety and depression in adulthood?

If you are interested in finding out more about this subject, the following TED talk is a good place to start:

A Response to Increased Knowledge

Paul Gilbert, a psychologist who has pioneered Compassion Focused Therapy, says:

“It is not your fault, but it is your responsibility”

It is helpful to know that depression and anxiety is not our fault.  There is nothing inherently wrong with us as a person.  We are merely human, like everyone else, with brains that respond to our environment.

However, with knowledge and practice, it is possible to be able to cope with the way the brain works and help ourselves to increase our capacity to deal with challenging situations in our everyday lives.

What needs to be done is to increase the functioning of the control parts of the brain.  This increases a person’s capacity to take a step back and assess a situation rather than immediately reacting emotionally.

How Breathing Helps

Breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  The ANS controls all the involuntary aspects of existence such as breathing, heart rate, the work of the vital organs.  It can be further divided into the sympathetic nervous system which is associated with “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic nervous system – “rest and digest”.   When we breathe in our sympathetic nervous system activates our brains and bodies with chemicals like adrenaline.  When we breathe out our parasympathetic nervous system releases a chemical that helps regulate body functions such as digestion, sleep and wake cycles and wound healing.

So consciously breathing out helps us to use our parasympathetic nervous system to calm ourselves down.

There are many different breathing techniques that are helpful, and the following are three that I find work for me.

  1. SOS breath

This is a really quick relaxer for times of tension and it stands for “Sigh Out Slowly”. It just means taking a breath and exhaling it out slowly with a sigh through the mouth.  If that is too noisy for a public place like the office or the GP’s surgery, simply a long breath out through the nose can be helpful too.  Repeat it a few times.

  1. Breaths to a count of 5

Here the aim is to slow the breathing right down so that the inhalation is to a count of 5, as is the exhalation.  Sometimes it feels too difficult to slow the breath down straight away.  In this situation, start to breathe in to 1 count and out to 1 count. Then breathe in two – 1, 2 – and breathe out to two – 1, 2.  Then increase to 3, then 4, then 5.  Once you have reached 5, on the exhalation tell yourself “body slowing down”.  Breathe in to 5 again.  As you breathe out to 5, tell yourself “mind slowing down”.  Keep repeating this and watch yourself become calmer.

  1. Rectangular or square breath

This is a technique where the breath is imagined as having four sides

  • The in breath
  • Holding the breath inside the body
  • The out breath
  • Holding the breath outside the body

For “square” breathing each of the stages is the same length, whereas for “rectangle” breathing the holding is half the length of the two breaths.  For beginners, the rectangle is probably easiest and would be like this:

  • Breathe in for a count of four
  • Hold the breath for a count of two
  • Breathe out for a count of four
  • Hold the breath for a count of two

It may help to imagine the shape of the rectangle during the exercise.  It is helpful to repeat the breathing pattern for a few minutes.

These breathing techniques are described in my video which, if you’re reading this via email, can be viewed at

Next week I will be considering the role of mindfulness in helping with anxiety and depression.

Photo credit: Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

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