Your body – everybody’s body – seeks balance, or ‘homeostasis’. It is positively looking for a reason to calm down again.
Fear is essentially the ‘exercise response’. If you are breathing hard, sweating, gasping and, after a time, shaking with exertion while on the treadmill in the gym, we do not call this panic. We call it exercise.
But if your breaths are shallow, your brow is sweaty and your heart is racing when you are, say, sitting down during a meeting, this we don’t call exercise. We call it panic.
Actually, the second example is effectively the body preparing for exercise. The symptoms of panic are so close to the symptoms of heavy exercise for a reason: because panic wants you to act in purely physical ways.
No one is ‘attacked’ by panic, which is why I don’t like the dis-empowering metaphor of panic ‘attacks’. Rather, I often talk to my clients in terms of an unnecessary or inappropriate ‘exercise response’.
Again, anything we do to let our instincts know this is not actually a situation that requires a massive investment of our energy will tend to balance out feelings of anxiety pretty fast.
Every breath you take
Now, one of the first responses to shift when we tag something as threatening is our breathing. We need to pump around more oxygen for all the heavy exercise our survival requires.
When we panic, what we tend to do is gulp air. This is also what we do during heavy exercise, because our muscles need all the oxygen they can get.
When we breathe in we activate the sympathetic nervous system – the part that has to do with fight or flight, heavy exercise and arousal. When we breathe out we activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the part that relaxes and calms us.
We will often sigh (slowly breathe out) when we are stressed as our body seeks to balance out our arousal levels.
I teach my clients 7/11 breathing , which they can do as soon as they feel at all anxious. This method involves breathing in to the quick count of 7 (not 7 seconds), pausing for a moment, breathing out to the quick count of 11, pausing for a moment again, and repeating. The numbers don’t matter so much. The important thing here is that the out breath is slower and longer than the in breath.
And this technique has a ripple effect, beyond just directly and quickly calming you down:
- The focus on breathing is a distraction. The fear response, if it could think, might conclude: “I wouldn’t be focusing on my breathing if there really were an immediate threat!”
Grade Your Anxiety
Years ago I was about to present to around 50 people. I’d never presented to more than 10 or 20, and suddenly, just before standing up to speak, I started to feel much more anxious than was useful for the situation.
I decided to grade the anxiety on a scale from 0 to 10, 0 being no anxiety at all (which would be just plain silly before giving a big talk) and 10 being the most terror I could possibly experience. I decided I was at a 6.
Already I’d done a few things to dilute the anxiety.
- I had re-framed it from a feeling to a number. Thinking about numbers is not nearly as scary as thinking about fear. This diluted the fear and also forced me to use the cognitive or thinking centres of my brain, which so often become locked out or ‘hijacked’ by fear.
- I had put a limit on it. Rather than letting the fear escalate to terror, I had given the fear an upper limit. I had also taken back a sense of control.
- I had gone into a mindful, ‘observing self’ state. A part of me was outside of the anxiety, watching it. I was not in the anxiety now, I was ‘watching’ it.
- I then picked a number I’d be happy starting my talk at. I decided a 3 would be fine.
- I began to breathe out slowly, and for longer than I breathed in . When I’d breathed myself down to a 3, I stood up and began the talk. This took perhaps 20 to 30 seconds.
- As none of the audience tried to kill me or even screamed or yelled in my direction (amazing!), my fear instinct soon got the message this wasn’t, in fact, a deadly encounter. I began to relax, get into a flow, and even enjoy the experience.
Getting into the habit of grading our anxiety and then choosing a number we can be happy with. We can breathe our way down to that number. This may seem like a really simple intervention, but it can be incredibly effective.