As we continue our series of articles on anxiety, which many more people are experiencing since the start of the pandemic, we need to explore one of the most basic functions of life: breathing. You cannot and will not “pass out” by holding your breath, but hyperventilate for 60 seconds or more and you can start to feel light headed. Continue for more than 2 minutes and you may indeed pass out. According to Daniel M. Gibbs’ blood flow reduction research, Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a much needed chemical in the bloodstream and rapidly escapes from the mouth when breathing heavily. CO2 is essential to keep oxygen levels healthy and blood flowing to the brain. What does this have to do with anxiety you ask? Incredibly, it’s both the cause and the antidote.

Unhealthy breathing triggers the sympathetic nervous system and can cause anxiety to occur or make it worse, whereas proper breathing can help to calm anxiety by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system when a person is experiencing symptoms. Anxiety almost always comes with uncomfortable physical symptoms such as sweaty palms, chills, trembling, racing/pounding heart rate, or shortness of breath. Sometimes the discomfort can feel much more serious such as dizziness, numbness, chest pain, and an intense fear of dying.

When the causes of these symptoms are unknown, anxiety can be easily misinterpreted as an imminent physical health problem, such as the feeling of having a heart attack. In fact: several studies have documented that panic disorder is the most common reason for seeking treatment for non-cardiac chest pain in the hospital emergency department.

Please LISTEN to your body: If you are concerned that you are experiencing a health crisis, please seek medical care. FULL STOP. This article should by no means replace medical advice from your physician.

When managing stress and anxiety, healthy breathing can and will significantly relieve anxiety symptoms and help prevent both mental and physical disorders from disrupting our activities of daily living. Here are just a few helpful breathing resources I often share with clients:

There are thousands of additional resources available online. All you need to do is Google it! Once you find a resource you enjoy, all you have to do is practice. Alongside breathing more intentionally, spending time in nature, exercising, and having a safe place to talk about your stress are key ingredients for reducing anxiety. Find a trusted person: a school counselor, friend, your partner, or a therapist.

Lynette Spencer is a licensed clinical social worker and co-owner of Action Consulting and Therapy in Geneva, Illinois.