Welcome to our Wednesday series for anxious people who have an oversensitive alarm
system, whose “danger scanner” is always on, and who need a little bit of self-care and
positive emotional energy by mid-week (when the tanks are starting to approach
depletion). Calm nature pictures are a great way to “nurture” our insecure selves and
help us stay grounded and in the moment.
Last week’s post talked about how you know when it’s time to pause and use some
relaxation and self-care tools. With this post, we are going to start building the toolbox.
Breathing is the easiest, most accessible, and most natural way to relax your brain and
body. Stay with me for a few minutes during this quick biology paragraph. I promise it
will make more sense as to why I ask you to exhale longer than inhale when you practice your breathing.
The autonomic nervous system is the branch of the nervous system that manages the
heart, lungs, circulatory system, and glandular system without our conscious control. It
is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system manages the body’s response to physical activity by
increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat secretion, and pupil
dilation. In short, it helps the body gear up for physical exertion.
The parasympathetic nervous system does much of the opposite work. It decreases heart
rate, blood pressure, and skeletal muscle tone, preparing the body for rest, sleep, or
Sleeping, eating, exercising or life stress affect these two systems. When our sympathetic
system is at work, exerting itself all the time, we feel negative stress and anxiety. When
the parasympathetic system kicks in, we feel relaxed.
Breathing is one of those activities that affect these systems as well. Inhalation
emphasizes sympathetic activity (the revved-up engine branch), and exhalation
stimulates the parasympathetic activity (the rest and relaxation branch). By adjusting the
ratio of inhalation to exhalation, we can adjust the focus given to sympathetic or
parasympathetic activity in each breath cycle.
Obviously, not all breaths are created equal. A great, simple breathing exercise for
calming both the nervous systems is a timed breath where the exhale is longer than the
inhale. When your exhale is even a few counts longer than your inhale, there’s a nerve
that sends a signal to your brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system and
turn down your sympathetic nervous system.
When feeling anxious, stressed out, or in a panic attack, try this exercise:
This exercise is super simple, takes almost no time, and can be done anywhere.
Although you can do the exercise in any position, it’s much more productive if you sit
with your back straight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of
4 breaths. Stick to 3-4 full breaths at one time for the first month of practice. As you get
better, you can do more and increase the second count, although make sure the
exhaling count is ALWAYS longer than the inhaling. If you feel a little lightheaded when
you first breathe this way, don’t worry, take a little break and try again.
If you think you could use additional support managing your anxiety, but you’re not quite ready for in-person therapy, I encourage you to take a look at my 2-hour course, The Overthinker’s Guide to Managing Anxiety. You can take this course at your own pace and as many times as you’d like. This is the jumpstart you need to start managing your anxiety once and for all!
ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage. Click HERE to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, intimacy, and anxiety management or join her at www.ruxandralemay.com for monthly blog posts.