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Let’s explore Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Breathing / Relaxation exercises

Most of us have heard the phrase “Fight or Flight” or “stress response”.  To explain, it is an ancient survival mechanism, it prepares the body to confront or flee from perceived threats.  The sympathetic nervous system turns on.  This response, involving a cascade of hormones like adrenaline, primed our ancestors to face predators or dangers, like a saber tooth tiger. In modern times, this response is often triggered not by physical threats, but by psychological stressors, leading to symptoms of anxiety. The same hormonal rush that once prepared humans to battle wild beasts, aka a saber tooth tiger or escape another peril now activates during traffic jams, work pressures, exam stress or social anxieties, causing symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sweating, and heightened alertness. These symptoms are the body’s way of preparing for action, but when the stressor is not something we can physically fight or flee from, it can lead to chronic anxiety. This is because the body’s stress response is activated too frequently and may not turn off as easily, leaving individuals in a state of constant alertness that is both mentally and physically exhausting. Understanding this link helps in managing modern anxiety by recognizing it as an ancient tool that our bodies use to protect us, albeit sometimes too zealously. 

There are three stages:

  • The alarm stage: During this stage, the sympathetic nervous system is ramped up, preparing your body to fight or flee.
  • The resistance stage:  This is the stage in which the body attempts to normalize and recover from the initial elevated fight or flight response.
  • The exhaustion stage:  If the first two stages occur repeatedly over time, such as when under chronic stress, this can cause the body to feel exhausted and begin to break down. 

Now that we understand it, how can we calm our fight or flight? Cognition is a great starting point.  Understanding and being aware of what is happening in the moment gives us back a sense of control.  When you notice that you are becoming tense or anxious, you can start looking for ways to calm down and relax your body.  You want to turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, this will turn off the stress reaction / fight or flight.  Allowing you to return to peacefulness again, slowing down the heart rate.

To summarize, sympathetic nerves work us up, the parasympathetic nerves calm us down.  However more and more in modern society our sympathetic nervous system is malfunctioning.  Leaving many with a constant sense of dread, panic and fear associated with anxiety.  A panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal fight or flight response.  Although they can be extremely alarming, they usually last between 5 and 20 minutes.  A panic attack is not permanent and is not dangerous, even though in the moment they may feel like it.  They can affect an individual in 3 different ways:

  • Physically:  Sweating and a fast heartbeat
  • Psychologically: Panic related thoughts
  • Behaviorally: Behaving differently

An attack can be triggered internally or externally.  When an individual first begins to feel anxious, they can focus on the physical symptoms resulting in an upward spiral of panic, symptoms of which can be misinterpreted as being more serious physically than they are.  A panic attack can regularly be mistaken for a heart attack by the individual.

If you are fearful of panic attacks or have suffered with them in the past or presently.  Some ways to help manage them can be:

  • Keeping a diary: take notes on the situations when you experience an attack.  It can help you identify what is triggering it, causing your alarm.
  • Physical activity:  Simply exercising creates endorphins which improves mood and releases tension that we hold in the body.  It can assist individuals to better manage their thoughts and ground themselves.
  • Be creative, find a hobby:  take up reading, painting, writing whatever you fancy.  Creative tasks can distract from your panic and give a purpose. 
  • Meditate: Assists an individual in training their mind to relax and refocus.  Turn2Me has a selection of guided meditation you can access for free.

This is where breathing and relaxation exercises are key in our overall wellbeing and managing stress and anxiety.  We need to allow our parasympathetic nervous system to do its job. 

Grounding exercise: If you are panicked, complete the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 list.

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can touch
  • 2 things you can smell
  • Take 1 long, slow, deep breath

Try some counting exercises, count your environment.  Focusing on your external environment can distract you from anxious thoughts.  Counts passing cars, people walking past.  Count backwards from 100.  Count the bricks in the wall, planks of wood on the floor, whatever is available to you.

Conscious breathing is a great tool to minimize anxiety and restore balance.  It should be included in your daily routine, throughout the day, while you are waiting for the kettle to boil, the printer to print…

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose for the 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds
  • Exhale slowly out through the mouth for 6-8 seconds, whatever you can manage.

You need to ensure that you are practicing self-care, prioritizing yourself, you are the most important person in your life!  Positive affirmations can be very powerful for a lot of people.  They can allow us to internally reassure as opposed to seeking reassurance from others.  Some examples of positive affirmations:

  • This feeling will pass
  • I am Safe
  • This is just anxiety, nothing more
  • I am becoming calmer with each breath
  • I am in control

If you feel you would like to explore your anxiety some more or improve your management strategies register at today.  We offer 6 free consecutive counselling sessions per annum, unlimited support groups, specifically “Tips on managing your anxiety”, Mondays at 6pm.  Weekly guided meditations at, Youtube and spotify.   Turn2Me a lifeline online.