The Sassy Psychologist: Just Breathe!

If someone would have told me that I’d be teaching my clients about the importance of paced breathing, I would have said they were sorely mistaken. As a student, I would have rolled my eyes and said that this kind of intervention was inefficient. BOY, WAS I WRONG! Proper breathing technique is an extremely important addition to any treatment plan, especially when treating anxiety. Let me explain why and hopefully I’ll convince you to the degree that I was sold on the idea that breathing is an indispensable tool in increasing general well-being.

Part of our nervous system controls automatic behavior and another part controls voluntary behavior. Within our automatic system (properly called the autonomic nervous system), exists two subsystems we need to understand. The sympathetic nervous system is the very popularized “fight or flight” system. When an emergency occurs, this system will cause us to fight or flee. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, allows us to calm down after a threat is gone. 

In an emergency, anxiety is our friend in that the symptoms will cause us to survive in a life-or-death scenario. However, individuals with anxiety trouble have an active sympathetic system, not because they are in an emergency, but because they are creating fictitious life-or-death scenarios with their preoccupied and worrisome thoughts.  As a result of these unhealthy thoughts, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and symptoms (like rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath only needed for emergencies) ensue. 

Given these facts, my work as a psychologist is clear. I need to help my clients gain more access to the parasympathetic system, to lower the frequent use of the sympathetic system. How might I do this? Well, paced breathing will trigger the use of the parasympathetic system. When you breathe in a relaxed manner, anxiety actually cannot exist. It’s physiologically impossible to trigger the parasympathetic system yet remain anxious. I use this knowledge to light a fire of motivation under my clients and try to show them that breathing will legitimately help reduce their anxiety.

Now, commonly, my clients say that breathing helps temporarily but once paced breathing stops, their anxiety returns. 

Of course it does.

When you train for a marathon or a piano recital, how often must you train? You cannot simply go to the gym once and expect to excel during the marathon. That same logic applies here. You must begin to train your parasympathetic system to be more present and accessible. You need to practice paced breathing 8-12 times per day for a few months in order to see any results. Just like everything else, reducing your anxiety will not happen overnight but it will happen once you gain control of your body.

Of course, modifying your breathing is not the be-all-end-all of anxiety treatment. Emotions also need to be expressed and thoughts need to be restructured. However, modifying your breathing is the first pivotal step in obtaining real change and healthy control over your body. 

I urge you to acknowledge the importance of paced breathing in reducing your anxiety and increasing your general well-being. All I can say is that when I finally clued in, it completely changed my life, personally and professionally.   

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.