Millions of people suffer from stress and anxiety, so we’re going to talk about a simple and effective strategy for improving anxiety. First, I’d like to share two different stories.
The first story happened to me a few years ago in San Diego. I was walking back to my office on lunch break and I passed a guy who was obviously homeless. He reached out his hand and asked, “Sir, do you have any money to spare?”
I honestly didn’t. I had no cash, just debit and credit cards. However, he was an engaging fellow so I talked to him for about ten minutes. The entire time, I kept gazing down at his feet.
He had no shoes, no socks, and his feet were in bad shape. They were cracked, discolored, and on the verge of infection. I continued to talk to him, learning his story and how he had fallen on hard times. I looked down at my own feet. I had shoes and I knew I was only a couple blocks away from my office.
“You know what,” I said to him, “I don’t have any money, but I want you to take my shoes. I’ll walk back to my office, it’s fine.” I gave him my shoes and pleaded with him to seek care for his feet because I didn’t want him to lose them.
The point of this story is that there’s a difference between stress, which is a human experience, and stressors. Stressors can certainly cause stress, but it’s more about our reaction to those stressors.
For example, this homeless guy had his wits about him. He had fallen on hard times, but he was still quite positive. His feet weren’t causing him stress, but they were causing me stress because I’m a doctor and I wanted him to be well. He wasn’t anxious though, so you can see there’s a difference between stress from human experience and the stressors that cause anxiety.
Doctor Reveals His #1 Master Tip To Deal With Anxiety
How Anxiety Affects You Physically and Emotionally
Stressors can be in our environment or our social systems, and the anxiety from stress can be problematic both physically and emotionally. Physically, anxiety can cause sweating, palpitations, fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, or muscle tension. Emotionally, anxiety can cause worry, fear, irritability, apprehension, or sleep disturbance.
It’s important to note that stress is not the only cause of anxiety. Some may have neurotransmitter imbalances, hormone imbalances, or reactive hypoglycemia. Anxiety can also be exacerbated by caffeine or food allergies.
The Difference Deep Breathing Can Make
Now for the second story. Several years ago, I had a patient who was a gentleman in his mid-50s with a very stressful job as an air traffic controller. He came in for an appointment with me and was on medication for both high blood pressure and anxiety.
During his appointment, he asked, “Dr. Shelton, is there anything else I can do to manage my stress and to help defeat the anxiety that I feel each and every day? Because it’s affecting my entire life.”
We sat down, reviewed his medical history, and made some changes to his diet and lifestyle. I also recommended a couple of botanical nutritional supplements to help with his blood pressure and anxiety.
The main thing I taught my patient that day though was deep breathing. I told him he only needed to engage in deep breathing exercises a few minutes every day to help with his stress, anxiety, and blood pressure.
He immediately replied that he didn’t have the time to do deep breathing or meditation, but I convinced him to do it for just a couple of minutes a day. I taught him a breathing technique that would use all three breathing muscle groups: the diaphragm which pushes out the belly, the intercostal muscles that expand the chest, and the scalenes which pull the chest up to the neck.
While there are many different deep breathing strategies, I taught him a simple one. Breathe in through the nose for eight seconds, breathe out through the mouth for eight seconds, and then repeat that process for as many minutes as you can.
The patient thanked me and it was about a year before he made another appointment. He came in beaming and was a different man entirely. He told, “Doc, I didn’t think I had the time for deep breathing exercises but I started with just a couple minutes a day and I loved it. It made such a difference in my stress and anxiety levels!”
At this point, he had progressed to 15 minutes of deep breathing a day. He was able to cut his dose of anti-anxiety medication in half and come off his blood pressure medication completely. A simple deep breathing technique, a few diet and lifestyle changes, and botanical nutritional supplements made a profound difference in his life.
Why Deep Breathing Exercises Have a Profound Effect on Anxiety
The nervous system is broken into two branches. One is the musculoskeletal which moves muscles and joints, and the other is the autonomic which is essentially responsible for all the automatic things your body does. The autonomic is involved in heart rate, breathing, digestion, the gastrointestinal tract, the genitourinary tract, and reproduction and sex.
The autonomic nervous system is broken down again into two branches. The first branch is the sympathetic, which is the fight or flight feeling you experience when stressed or fearful of danger. The second branch is the parasympathetic, which is quite relaxing.
The captain, so to speak, of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve controls basically everything from the neck down, like heart rate, respiration rate, and digestion. The wonderful thing about deep breathing exercises is that you can use them to change how the vagus nerve speaks to the rest of the body and change how respiration relaxes you.
Studies on Deep Breathing
Let’s take a look at two studies on the positive effects of deep breathing. The first study was done on a group of musicians from the Julliard School of Music, where there was a study group and a control group. The study group was instructed to engage in deep breathing exercises for 10 to 15 minutes a day and the control group was vaguely told to ‘relax.’
Scientists found that the study group had better vagal tone, sleep, preservation of safety, performance, coping skills, and focus. They experienced less anxiety just through deep breathing.
Emotions are not solely a phenomenon within the brain but are composed of body responses as well. These can include autonomic and behavioral responses such as changes in heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance, and respiration. Among these physiological responses, respiration has a unique relationship to emotion. While the primary role of respiration concerns metabolism and homeostasis, emotions such as disgust, anger, and happiness also influence respiratory activities.
While respiratory change that accompanies emotions can occur unconsciously, respiration can also be voluntarily altered associating with an activation of part of the brain called the motor cortex. There may be no physiological expression for the association of the three areas of the brain that regulate respiration: the brainstem, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. The brainstem works to maintain homeostasis, the limbic system is responsible for emotional processing, and the cerebral cortex controls intention. If you’re able to grab hold of that vagus nerve, you can change how the brain functions and responds to stress.
The second study was done on Zen meditation practitioners. The scientists asked the study group to continue their practice, and then had a control group as well. The study group was asked to focus on deep breathing exercises with all three muscle groups: the diaphragm, intercostals, and scalenes. They engaged in deep breathing exercises for 20 minutes a day.
Compared to the control group, scientists found there were dramatic changes in heart rate, incidents of asthmas, abdominal pain, pro-inflammatory cytokines, blood pressure, anxiety, and mental focus.
Just 20 minutes of deep breathing a day caused these significant improvements in physiological function. The respiratory system listens and carefully remembers how previous stimuli affects breathing. For example, repeated slow breathing sessions trigger a respiratory memory to strengthen the ability of respiratory motor neurons to trigger the contraction of breathing muscles, even when you’re not thinking about it. This type of respiratory plasticity is known as long-term facilitation
If you can commit to a few minutes of deep breathing exercises every day and increase the length over time, you’ll see a difference in your stress, anxiety, and other physiological effects that stress can cause. Never doubt that small changes, like deep breathing exercises, can have a profound effect on your health.
Zenith Labs created a supplement called Meditation in a Bottle. It contains several botanical adaptogens that help with stress hormones such as cortisol. Meditation in a Bottle can help with adrenal health, along with reducing the amount of stress and anxiety you feel.
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I believe in the original meaning of the word doctor, ‘docere’, which means teacher. I’m here to help educate you on how to take care of yourself in ways that you may not have heard of before, but that are effective. I always want to hear your ideas and feedback so be sure to leave me comments below!