Taming the Saber-Toothed Tiger: Managing Anxiety Through Breathing

I get more counseling inquiries for anxiety than any other mental health issue, and therefore I spend a lot of time working with and thinking about the nature of anxiety. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. If we didn’t, as a species we’d likely have died out a long time ago, as anxiety is a natural product of our nervous system, which protects us from predators and other life threatening dangers.

But most of us aren’t living on the savanna any longer, hunting and gathering, and guarding against being made into lunch for a saber-toothed tiger.

We may know that, but our nervous systems don’t. It’s all about neurobiology: our large prefrontal cortex knows we aren’t in imminent danger, but our limbic system, including the clamoring amygdala, does not. That stick on the ground, it’s a snake! That dark cloud over the mountains, inevitably heading toward us!

You may want to view the world as the “cup is half full,” but your limbic system will often scream that it’s half empty.

What to do? Quieting the sympathetic nervous system is a lot easier than you might think. When you’re afraid, your limbic system produces stress hormones as well as adrenaline and other biochemicals to cause physiological responses, most importantly rapid and shallow breathing in order to facilitate the flight, fight, or flee response. This is automatic breathing. You do it before you even know you’re doing it.

The solution is to reverse the process by hijacking your nervous system. You employ your powerful left prefrontal cortex to instruct your body to slow your breathing down. Mindful breathing. Try this simple exercise, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth:

Breathe deeply into your belly for two seconds, then exhale for two seconds. Inhale for two, exhale for four. Inhale for two, exhale for six. Do this up to ten second exhalations.

The key here is breathing deeply into your belly, and exhaling slowly and in a controlled fashion. When you’re finished, you will have effectively shifted away from sympathetic nervous system response. It takes only a couple of minutes, and doing this just a few times a day can dramatically decrease your stress response.

Let the saber-toothed tiger find his lunch in someone else’s nervous system for a change!

Maren Rush