What happens when we feel fear? We have experienced something in our environment that has sparked a sudden response to a perceived threat: we fight, run, or freeze. When we freeze, we hold ever so still. We are in ‘shutdown’ caused by anxiety. It is as if we are trying to become invisible at that moment. We are stuck in this holding pattern and we have never gotten any instruction on how to consciously move out of this protective pattern. We have just the tool we need to help us through that moment of freezing in a conscious and deliberate manner. We can move from this frozen place back into the flow with ease by using the breath.
Our unconscious breath pattern is a reflection of what we are experiencing in our reality. When we are calm, our breath is slow and we take relatively deep breaths. Our heartbeat follows the breath, so as our breath pattern remains regular and even, so does the rhythm of the heartbeat. When we feel fear, a threat to our safety, our breathing unconsciously shifts to a shorter, shallower, and more rapid pattern. The pattern of our heartbeat shifts right along with the change in our breathing, becoming erratic. Then the whole body begins to feel ungrounded and unstable, becoming loaded with frenetic energy. As we felt threatened, we began to shallow breathing, but now we are holding our breath altogether. The heartbeat doesn’t stop, of course, but it will continue to reflect the frenzy of energy the body is experiencing. Then we feel the entire body change into a state of unease and we feel very unsettled indeed.
When we feel threatened, the reactions that I have just listed occur rapidly. Here is where our awareness of the breath as a tool to help us through such moments comes into play. Once we realize that we are in freeze mode and are holding our breath, we have done half of the work to get back to a calmer state. Let the breath out. Just this simple act of releasing your held breath gives the nervous system the signal “I am safe,” and it responds readily by relaxing a bit, thereby releasing the shutdown we were experiencing.
Breathe deeply and evenly. A slow and repeated deep, even breath pattern allows much-needed oxygen to infuse back into the body, the heartbeat to regain its stability, and the cells in the body follow suit. Turn into the sensations you are experiencing and breathe into them to help ground yourself once again. That conscious breath is one powerful steadying force. The act of consciously breathing literally has a marked calming effect throughout the entire nervous system and so emanates out to the rest of the body. As we focus on the breath, we allow any stories of self-doubt and any other fear-based concerns to fall away. There are only the intentional breath and its miraculous calming power.
Here are the steps to move through and out of “shutdown” when it happens:
1) Recognize that you are in “shutdown.” For me, awareness is the first and most powerful step in this whole process. If I am ’lost’ in freeze-mode, I will likely remain there until I realize I am there. It is as if you are the witness of your own behavior at that moment. From this place of being the witness, being aware that we are ‘shut down’, we can then take conscious, grounded action to move forward from here.
2) Exhale. Let your breath out and breathe consciously. When we freeze. We hold our breath. The next step through “shutdown” is to exhale and bring your attention to your breath. Breathe slowly, deeply, and evenly. Inhale to a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale to a count of 4. Inhale again and repeat this breath pattern. This will help you in calming yourself.
3) Recognize that you are here, on your way out of “shutdown.”
4) Give yourself permission and space to be exactly where and who you are. Accept and embrace the moment. Drop any resistance or judgment you have about feeling this way.
5) “I am safe.” Tell and assure yourself that you are safe. This further releases the nervous system to break its grip on its holding pattern in “shutdown.”
6) Give yourself some encouragement and steadiness by saying to yourself, “I accept myself the way I am right now. It is okay. I am safe.” This is a little more reassurance for your whole body to hear the message that it is safe to relax.
7) Give yourself space in time before responding to the situation you find yourself in. (Before I discovered this process, my urge was to move forward just to get away from what I perceived to be the great discomfort of “shutdown”- and as rapidly as possible. The result was, shall we say, not always the best move on my part.) Take your time. Breathe. Respond as consciously as you are breathing. You’ll be fine. You’ve totally got this!
8) Ask for help from your Higher Power in framing whatever response you bring to the situation.
9) Pause to listen. A direction for your response will arise.
10) Notice and decide. How does your response feel in your heart? If you are getting a “yes” from your heart, then act and speak from this place. If you are not getting a “yes,” sit quietly, breathing until the direction for your response arises from your heart. You will feel it when it comes. And it will come. Just take a moment to let it come in.
11) Move from your heart space. This completes your journey out of moving from “shutdown” into a calm state of ease in your life.
This tool of using the breath to help through the ‘freeze mode’ that we feel when we are threatened is always with you. You need only remember that you have it. The more we practice mindful breathing, the faster we remember that it is there for us to use at a moment’s notice. And what a powerful tool it is!
For more breathing techniques to help with anxiety, go here.
Elizabeth Kipp is a long time seeker of truths with a foot each in the spiritual and scientific worlds. Her life experiences and training enable her to bridge the gap between these two somewhat different worlds.