Relax, breathe, take a breath!

Easy concepts, but sometimes anxiety can be so overwhelming it can feel like you can’t breathe at all.

Anxiety is kind of like an out of control flight or fight response. That means in stressful times (when there is a state of fear) or in quiet, random times (a trait that we are neurologically hard wired for) our bodies respond as if we need to prepare for fighting or defending ourselves.

Our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which makes our heart speed up, blood rushes to our muscles, and we take rapid shallow breaths.

If someone has an anxiety disorder this state can lead to an almost paralyzing condition where you feel trapped and scared. You may have trouble focusing or making decisions. You can feel like you can’t catch your breath, or you might even feel like your heart is wiggling around so much you might die.

It can be really difficult to reclaim calm and focus when your body feels out of control.

One technique is to breathe.

It sounds simple, but in the condition I have described it can be a real challenge.

Imagine something so simple that we do every day, all day, being something we have to concentrate on and intentionally try to control.

My friend told me that she had experienced one of these situations.  She had left work after a very stressful day. She began to panic as she reached her car. She drove away and when she was stopped at a red light several blocks later, noticed that she had been breathing shallowly and was actually holding her breath. She took a deep breath.  Then another. Her panic stopped.  She felt calmer and her heart rate returned to normal. She began to be able to think more clearly about this situation at work and over the drive home came up with a reasonable solution.

Breath is a powerful tool. A deep breath can restore a sense of calm.  This may not be immediate and may take a few attempts over several minutes. It works by shifting from that sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This system is supportive of calm. It returns blood flow to the organs so that digestion can happen, cognition (our thinking) improves,  heart rhythm is regulated and our body returns to a calm state.

One conscious deep breath can often start to reset us.

There are many helpful exercises and meditations that can help restore calm through breathing.  Yoga and mindful or guided meditation are available in many communities if you want to learn more.

For starters though, try a breath.  Fill your lungs deeply and let it go.  It is free and available, you don’t have to learn how and it might help.

I wish you all good breathing and calm in 2020.

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The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. Contact

For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

By Paula Frappier, Geropsychiatry community education coordinator, Homewood, CMHA