Naturally rewire the anxious brain using vagal breathing

Anxiety has the ability to mentally disable us in an instant however, far too often anxiety runs in the background and the tricks it plays on us are far more subtle.

In this post I will show you how to use vagal breathing to rewire your brain from an anxious state and how to reengineer your thought patterns using biofeedback training.

Once you equip yourself with the fundamentals of the nervous system, you will understand how anxiety shapes your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You will also see that it’s not just one thing that makes you anxious, but rather a combination of factors between brain, body and behaviour. By the end of this video, you gain an understanding of what it looks and feels like to function without anxiety!

When someone goes into a state of shock or panic, the first think we say almost instinctively is to breath. Have you ever wondered why?  There is in fact an intimate relationship between our breath and the state of our nervous system.

Here I will show you the vagal breathing technique deigned to work with your own biology.

Vagal breathing is a proprietary technique that I developed from evidence-based neuroscience, rather than retrofitting the science to a pre-existing breathing technique. I share the effectiveness of vagal breathing in this post.

Briefly, here are some of the benefits of vagal breathing.

  1. Once trained, vagal breathing is a natural reflex – you don’t have to think about it.
  2. Because it is a hardwired into your biology, it is effective in realtime, you don’t need to practice it.
  3. Designed to heighten your vagal tone which means that you can switch between sympathetic and parasympathetic states and recover faster from perceived threats.

Now let’s first breakdown anxiety into manageable stages and see how we can intercept the neural pathway at specific stages to rewire the brain more efficiently.

We can classify Anxiety based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria, which is a set of check boxes psychiatrist use to categorise psychological symptoms. Since there is countless literature already available on this, we will look at anxiety from the perspective of the nervous system in this post.

Based on the DSM diagnosis, the two main treatments options are medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) both of which have a 40% response rate and a high relapse rate. The reasons for poor response to treatment will become apparent later in this post.

Before we begin, please note that this post is for educational purpose only and does not substitute clinical diagnosis.

Acute anxiety

Acute anxiety is triggered by irrational fears such as phobias or sudden social anxiety – I’m not talking about social anxiety disorder here which is a separate topic.

In acute anxiety, you could be functioning normally throughout the day and in an instant be immobilised by fear. For example, the de-skilled effect that happens when an employer looks at an employee and they instantly freeze on the spot and loose all their skill in that moment.

This is also fairly common in approach anxiety when someone you are attracted to starts speaking to you for the first time and suddenly you become someone else, your voice becomes high pitched and you struggle to find the right words to say.

Acute anxiety may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, chest palpitations and trembling. These physical symptoms are a signs that you nervous system has switched from the parasympathetic state to the sympathetic state, also know as the fight or flight response. The de-skilled effect is an example of the freeze response in the fight or flight mechanism.

The most immediately accessible tool you have in this moment is your breath. As I mentioned before, there is a natural biological relationship between your breath and your heart rate known as Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA). The RSA is a biological reflex where the heart accelerates during inspiration to saturate pulmonary oxygen concentration. The heart slows down with each out breath to exchange carbon dioxide. This is the hardwired relationship between breathing and heart rate.

By prolonging the exhale, we have direct control over our own heart rate and therefore the state of our nervous system. We can keep the exhale twice as long as the inhale to induce relaxation even under threat and allow the nervous system to return to the parasympathetic baseline to experience a sense of safety.

So the next time you feel suddenly threatened, use vagal breathing by following these three steps:

  1. Inhale through the nose and expand your diaphragm.
  2. Exhale through the mouth, relax as if you are deflating the body
  3. Keep the exhale at least twice as long as the inhale.

In my online course, I show you step-by-step exactly how to do this at progressive levels of threat and how to further accelerate Heart Rate Recovery (HRR) recovery by integrating autonomic, sensory-motor and emotional feedback loops.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Using breath to feel safe is an essential first step, now let’s look at how to use vagal breathing to rewire the brain.

When anxiety become a familiar occurrence and you don’t know what it feels like to live without it, the nervous system has gone past the point where the parasympathetic state feels safe. This is called Generalised Anxiety disorder (GAD).

The physical symptoms accompanying GAD include digestive and autoimmune conditions as the fight or flight state overwrites the rest, digest and restorative function of the parasympathetic state.

Anxiety is essentially an overreactive fear network. Fear is relayed to the brain by a structure at the base of your brain called the Locus Coeruleus (LC). When this structure is activated, it immediately sends a shockwave like signal alerting us to threat. Fear to perceived threats is suppressed by the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) by down-regulating the basolateral amygdala (BLA) also known as the emotional centre of the brain. Side note – Keep this emotional pathway in mind as it is imperative to understanding how we intercept the nervous system at a specific stage. When someone has anxiety, the threat takes centre stage and remains at the forefront of their mind – long after the shockwave has passed so they remain in a state of threat.

 

The Human Fear Circuitry © Kaushik Ram, PhD. The network consists of both feedforward and feedback pathways. The input into the feedforward pathway is indicated by the red arrows. Output of the feedforward network is expressed by the yellow arrows. Instances of feedback processing is represented by the blue arrows. A visual mismatch is automatically registered as danger. The direct visual input activates the superior collicullus (SC). If the alarm is auditory in nature the inferior collicullus is activated. The integration of preprocessed sensory information is received by the pulvinar which is the posterior most region of the thalamus. The thalamus relays the acquired sensory information to the Basolateral amygdala (BLA). The central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA) provides the collective amygdala output to the locus coeruleus (LC). The feedforward input cascade induces a “shockwave” like feedforward output from the LC to widespread brain regions resulting in sudden alertness and automatic orienting to the danger stimuli. Interactions between the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulated and orbitofrontal cortices (ACC and OFC) brings conscious appraisal of the danger stimuli. The ACC integrates contextual information from the hippocampus and other simultaneously active regions such as the amygdala. Together with the OFC, the PFCs provide feedback disinhibition to the earliest stages of the amygdala processing, thus releasing the LC from tonic amygdala excitation.

 

The Great Paradox is that the anxious state now feels familiar, so we do everything to maintain it, which means we keep the nervous system in a threatened state because that is what we think is safe.

People experiencing GAD can be high functioning yet, the residual anxiety held by the nervous system keeps them held back because fear has taken possession of their thought patterns. This can look like:

  1. Procrastination – which is to say that you are so overwhelmed by what you need to do that you will avoid it at all costs. Biologically, this is the flight or avoidance response when the nervous system feels threatened.
  2. Commitment phobia – where you are so afraid of loosing someone that you refuse to commit in the first place. This means that all your decisions are coming from a state of fear and results in you ending up loosing the person you love anyway.
  3. Self-soothing activities such as emotional eating, promiscuity and other forms of mindless consumption. This is where you seek out pleasure in order to get a dopamine hit which is a temporary fix. This is a dangerous road to dependancy and an investment in false sense of security.

Breath alone is not enough for GAD. Breathing is a short term solution and falls short of genuinely rewiring your brain. What is required is behavioural changes to reinforce the parasympathetic state: to rewire the nervous system to feel safe against what feels familiar – that is to say, to suspend your belief and go against what feels right until it starts working.

First, I need to establish, what I mean when I talk about rewiring the brain in the context of neuroscience.

There are two types of rewiring:

1. Actual neurobiological change know as Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) which strengthens synaptic connections and Long-Term Depression (LTD) which weakens synaptic connections.

2. Hype created at the expanse of neuroscience by people who are experts at marketing false hope.

Let’s revisit the PFC-BLA pathway in the context of actual neurobiological change.

Stage 1. Emotion:

Any form of threat whether physical or psychological elicits an Emotion that is short latency both neurochemically and experientially and lasts about 200ms. This is how long it takes emotion generated by the limbic system to reach our conscious perception.

Stage 2. Feeling:

Your cortex then translates emotion into feeling by integrating time parameters such as creating meaning by evoking memory and creating fear by projecting worst case scenarios about the future. Feelings can last for a few seconds to several minutes.

Stage 3. Mood:

If feelings consumes us, we call it mood which can last can last for several hours to a few days depending on the agility of your nervous system to switch between states. The agility of the nervous system depends on your vagal tone which is heightened through vagal breathing.

Stage 4. State:

If mood consumes us to the point where it is beyond our control, we call it a state. In the case of anxiety – this is an anxious state and clinically we refer to this as Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

States are neurochemically reinforced by behaviours that trick us into a false sense of security such as self-soothing activities. This is why states are so hard to shift. Someone can be in a anxious mood – like just before a job interview, but it is much harder to shift an anxious state which is behaviourally reinforced.

To rewire the brain, we intercept our neural circuity at Stage 1, before emotion is translated into feeling. At first glance 200ms is far too quick to intercept with thought. This is true. For this reason, it is futile to invest in positive psychology or talk our way out of anxiety. In fact positive psychology only provides temporary comfort since your thoughts do not reflect your internal state and we cannot rewire the brain when there is a conflict of interest between brain and body.

Academics and psychiatrists continue to avoid establishing a state of safety prior to administering treatment and wonder why treatments only have a 40% response rate.

It is now clear that your heart rate changes before the brain gets the opportunity to process information. You can observe this for yourself the next time you feel threatened. Changes in your heart rate therefore governs everything that happens upstream including your metabolic rate, organ function and thought patterns. When we are threatened our thinking becomes tunnel visioned, linear and goal directed and comes at the expanse of creativity. In my Train your Nervous System Online course, I depart from legacy-based neuroscience literature and explain the exact 8-level information processing pathway between brain and body.

Since vagal breathing is a biological reflex, we can use the 200ms emotional spike as a trigger to relaxation before our conscious perception gets the opportunity to manipulate our thoughts. This process intercepts the PFC-BLA pathway between stimulus and response.

As long as you are focusing on breath, you are breaking the momentum of thought and eventually a gap appears between your thoughts. Through vagal breathing, you want to prolong this gap in thought so you have all the time in the world to choose whether to react or to respond.

Between stimulus and response we have the ability to choose.

This process is highly effective, especially when experiencing a panic attack and in my HRV biofeedback training video, I show you side-by-side comparisons of different breathing techniques on your Heart Rate Recovery (HRR). If you have a biofeedback device such as an apple watch, you may wish to test this for yourself.

I now want to focus on what it feel like to be free of anxiety. We have all had experiences when the nervous system is in a heightened state. This is perhaps why people crave action-adventure sports as a form of escape. These activities artificially introduce a gap in thought where – all thoughts are momentarily suspended.

But its never been those activities which only provide momentary glimpses of what if feels like to exist outside anxiety. When we rewire the PFC-BLA pathway to feel safe under perceived threat, over-time the nervous system gradually shifts from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic baseline. Because vagal breathing is designed to heighten your vagal tone, you are now able to shift between states seamlessly. This agility of the nervous system to switch between states, moment to moment is called Flow and as with all states – it is long-lasting since it is reinforced by a completely different neurochemical configuration.

We don’t need an activity to experience that there something more powerful than you that is in control.

When you are emotionally invested in thought, you are living your life at the mercy of your own emotions. Breath introduces a gap in the corrosive momentum of thought and in that moment, it gives you the opportunity to let go. You can simply do this right now, in this moment.

Because it was never about controlling the chaos but letting go of the paralysing grip of fear that pretends to protect us.

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