By Claudia Venturino, psychologist, psychotherapist and psychodramatist
Breathing is the first action we take when we come into life: it represents the essence of life itself and it is not surprising that our deepest feelings are linked to it. Often we size our emotions using expressions that recall respiratory actions, “I have a lump in my throat”, “My mother suffocates me”, “This job is cutting off my air”. We can be more or less conscious of the fact that our emotions are disturbing our breathing rhythm; still, a hint of danger is enough for us to immediately hold our breath and when we find a solution to a problem we take a deep breath.
But the contrary is also true: the way we breathe influences our psychic state. We all know that sudden changes on our breathing activity – such as light apneas or breathlessness moments – can scare us more than it is needed.
In certain situations the mutual conditioning of breathing and emotional states becomes quite evident.
Symptoms related to breathing are almost always present in case of anxiety and panic attacks: dyspnea (from a blocked or forced respiration to asthmatic crisis), excess of cough, hick ups, dysphonic or aphonic crisis. These symptoms are perceived as danger alerts because they generate a feeling of “lack of air”, which produces thoughts of imminent death. The term anxiety, in fact, comes from Latin anxia that comes from the verb angere which means ‘to hold tight’, ‘to suffocate’.
Few people know that anxiety, before being a dysfunction weighing on many people’s life, is a symptom generated by a series of physical modifications that are absolutely useful and necessary to human life. We are talking about a chain of reactions produced by a situation felt as dangerous. Let’s think about – for example – a big dog running towards us growling. As we perceive the imminent danger our body reacts putting all of its resources at the service of escaping or of defending ourselves, for the bravest. This means an increment in blood pressure, a higher respiratory rate, a higher heartbeat and transpiration, accelerated memorization and creativity processes and an increased sensorial receptivity.
This physiological mechanism called attack-escape (from the dog in our case), has been developing throughout the centuries to ensure the best possible response in dangerous situations (even though originally it was about running from lions!). The accelerated heart activity provides a higher quantity of blood to the brain – allowing a better concentration – and to the muscles; deeper and quicker respiratory rates provides oxygen to the whole body that, in addition, gets refreshed by a more abundant sweat. As one of the essential mechanisms for the survival of the species, it became part of our genetic behavioral program: the chain of physiological phenomena functional to attack-escape mechanism starts off every time we face a supposed danger.
This mechanic tends to be self-generated because fear produces fear and escaping becomes a regular habit of avoiding all those situations that can induce the physiological chain reaction.
Anxiety treatments can include anxiolytic drugs, which reduce the response to anxigenic stimuli, as well as psychotherapy, focused to modify those dysfunctional thoughts that are generating the disorder. Both can be accompanied by relaxation techniques, such as Training Autogeno and Shiatsu because they facilitate the control over the physiological activation level and help reduce tension.