The Astronaut That Found Her Air Supply: Anxiety & Grief

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I promised a quick crash course about fight or flight/anxiety and grief in my last blog post, so here goes:

Anxiety is a pretty big piece of the puzzle when it comes to grief. I’ve discussed my own experiences with anxiety and my unhealthy coping strategies I used for years before coming to a place where I could recognize how unhealthy they were. If you haven’t read Part I of this blog post you can find it here.

When we have or are experiencing trauma our bodies can go into a state of fight or flight. If you aren’t familiar with this, it is essentially our built in instinct to react to danger. Think of an animal in the wild, when they see a predator they are going to run or attack, instinctively. As humans we have this same instinctual response built in. The problem is that as humans we have the ability to perceive danger even though it might not be immediately present. For example, if someone you love is chronically ill and you are unsure of the possible outcomes of their illness, this can be perceived as a threat to us even though it isn’t threatening our life.

When we experience the thoughts and feelings of being threatened parts of our autonomic nervous system kick into action. Our autonomic nervous system is responsible controlling and regulating some organs without our conscious recognition of this process. The two parts we are concerned with here are:

  • sympathetic- when stimulated, this part is responsible for kick starting our preparation for stress: increased heart rate, increasing blood flow to our muscles, perspiration, dilated pupils (aka fight or flight)
  • parasympathetic(also called rest and digest)- when stimulated, this part is responsible for taking us out of our fight or flight response

When we talk about coping strategies that are helpful with anxiety there are some that are proven to work because this is a biological response. Unfortunately, as humans we have to raise our awareness to when we are experiencing this stress response so we can work to challenge and combat it. Our thoughts and experiences can trigger our stress response and we have to be able to implement the tools that allow our body to communicate to the parasympathetic part of our nervous system to take us out of fight or flight.

The most helpful strategy that I have used and often encourage with my clients is diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system and in turn takes us out of our fight or flight response.

So how do you practice diaphragmatic breathing you ask? There are lots of tutorials on the web that you can look up or watch on YouTube but here are a few quick instructions:(quick disclaimer, if you have shoulder problems, difficulty breathing, heart problems or any other health concerns please consult with a physician before trying this)

  • Sit upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor
  • Interlock your hands with your palms facing out and place your locked hands on top of your head
  • Take a nice long, slow inhale through your nose and exhale long and slow through your mouth, the goal here is controlled breath
  • Pay attention to where the physical sensations of the breath are going to and leaving from, you should notice breath in the space right below your sternum

The reason part of the directions was placing your hands on top of your head is this allows us to breath directly from our diaphragm. Obviously, the goal is for you to know the sensation of where the breath is coming from through this practice so that it eventually comes naturally to you. You can do this standing or laying down but trying it in an upright position to start can be most helpful.

Tips for beginners:

  • Again, slow controlled breaths are what we are looking for, this can feel foreign or uncomfortable at first, give yourself time to acclimate to this
  • We want to pause quickly in between breaths
  • We want our exhale to be a bit longer than our inhale; as our exhale is what actually stimulates the parasympathetic division of nervous system
  • Take note of what you feel like before starting the technique and after

What will it look like:

  • Sit upright, feet flat on floor, interlock hands palms facing out and place on head
  • Inhale through your nose for a count of 5 (Inhale, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Pause (holding breath for quick second in between inhale and exhale
  • Exhale through your mouth slow and controlled for a count of 7 (Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • You might need to adjust the count of your breath to less or more depending on what feels comfortable for you
  • Begin just by trying 5-10 breaths (inhale & exhale= 1)

This wasn’t such a “quick crash course” but hopefully was educational and helpful for those of you struggling with stress response in relation to grief or any other stressors in your life space.

Thanks for reading and as always #grieveon!





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