Tools To Use When You Feel Overwhelmed Or Anxious (Part 1 - Breath)

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Sometimes, often seemingly out of nowhere, we can experience intense feelings of anxiety or overwhelm. This may be experienced as, but not limited to, a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, racing thoughts, an upset stomach, and feelings of fear or panic. You may feel completely out of control and at a loss of how to gain that control back. Your thoughts may spiral or feel like they’re on repeat, or sometimes your bodily sensations are so intense, that you aren’t even connected to your thoughts at all!

What’s Happening?

From a biological perspective, we can understand that in these moments of intense anxiety, it is likely that our amygdala, an area of the brain, has been triggered by something in our awareness. The amygdala is a safety mechanism that turns on our stress response when it receives a signal that we are in danger. This is commonly known as the fight-flight-freeze response. Although the amygdala works to keep us safe, sometimes it receives misinterpreted signals, but it will fire anyway. When the amygdala fires, it limits our ability to access our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is another area of the brain (right behind our forehead!) that contains the ability to make decisions, solve problems, control impulses and emotions, and plan for the future. This can help explain why we often feel out of control when feeling anxious!

What Can We Do?

Once our amygdala fires and sends signals out to the body to respond (i.e., feelings of anxiety and overwhelm), and our prefrontal cortex pretty much goes offline, it can be very challenging to regulate ourselves back into our bodies. However, one ‘hack’ can be to use a technique that involves diaphragmatic breathing. Research has shown that deep, slow breathing can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to switch off the amygdala and bring the body back to balance. 

Although therapy can be a supportive journey to recognize your triggers, build resiliency, and create long-term change, sometimes you may need in-the-moment strategies to help with experiences of intense anxiety. One mindfulness-based tool you can practise on your own is diaphragmatic breathing.


Take a look at the types of breathing techniques listed below. They are listed in order of complexity. Try starting with mindful breathing, and if you feel comfortable, continue on with the techniques that follow.

*IMPORTANT NOTE* Sometimes, taking deep breaths can make us feel dizzy or fatigued, especially if we have other health or medical concerns. Please practise mindfully and adjust the lengths of your breath to accommodate your needs. 

Take a moment to settle yourself into a seated position, maybe a chair or up against a wall, or maybe lying down if that’s easier. Start to notice your breathing…notice the inhale and how you might feel your ribs expand and your chest rise. Then notice how your body responds to the exhale…perhaps you can feel a sense of groundedness with the earth beneath you. 

Mindful Breathing

Slowly inhale for a count of 3, then gently, purse your lips like you were about to use a straw, and blow the air out for a count of 3. Once you feel empty, take a normal breath in and out, then try again. Inhale slowly for 3, then purse your lips and gently blow the air out your mouth for a count of 3. Repeat 3-4 more times, then let yourself breathe in and out at your normal pace. Notice how you feel.

3-Part Breath

Slowly inhale for a count of 3. Fill your belly, ribs, chest, with your breath, then exhale out the mouth for 3. The next step is to fill your belly with breath for 1 count, pause, then fill your chest with another sip of air, then pause, then finally fill your chest with breath until you feel full. You may gently pause, then purse your lips and blow gently out your mouth, releasing all your air. Do this 3-part breath 3-4 more times, taking breaks if necessary, then let all that go by breathing normally again. Take a moment to notice how you feel. 

Box Breathing

Slowly inhale through your nose for 3 counts, then pause, holding the breath for 2-3 counts, before exhaling slowly again (out your nose or mouth) for 3 counts. Again, inhale slowly for 3, noticing the rise of your chest, pause for 2-3 counts, then exhale again for 3 counts. Notice any sensations or feelings in the body. Continue for 3-4 more rounds, taking a break if you need. Continue to notice. 

Need some extra help practicing these techniques to reduce your anxiety? Reach out to us at Holistic Healing Counselling and one of our Edmonton-based trained therapists will get you started!

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Welcome to Holistic Healing

Meet our certified therapists, Adam, Selena, Juanita, Danielle, Kelsey and Shaheen. No matter what you want to work on, we have a therapist to help. Our Counsellors focus on helping you feel at ease by allowing you to feel heard and understood. By using a holistic, or whole picture approach, our trained Counsellors can help their patients live a happier, more authentic life. Our therapists offer adult counselling, couples counselling, and adolescent/teen counselling. Interested in learning more? Need to book a session? Contact Us here.


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