The Iceman, shallow breathing, and the freeze response

I’ve started experimenting with “The Iceman” Wim Hof’s breathing method because of the evidence that it can reduce inflammatory agents in the body.

But the deep breathing proved increasingly difficult for me to sustain. Breath holds? No problem. It’s the quick, repeated breaths that left me tense and unable to continue.

Which is great, because I’ve struggled with different forms of exercise and physical exertion all my life, but hadn’t considered the root cause might be in my breathing.

It turns out that stress, trauma, and anxiety cause shallow breathing. The fight-or-flight (or freeze) response sometimes calls for complete stillness and silence, with the possibility of frantic action if the situation calls for it.

You see a bear in the woods (or in Australia a snake) and our first reaction is to freeze and hope the dangerous animal doesn’t notice us. The backup plan is to get the hell out of there, requiring the use of auxiliary breathing muscles in the chest and neck.

This article describes the process in detail, rethinking the stock advice to “take a deep breath” in the context of strength training, yoga, and other forms of exercise.

When you freeze, your breathing becomes almost imperceptible. Many people go through life breathing like this, compensating with occasional deep inhalations and periodic sighing to balance out the shallowness.

The article linked above offers some suggestions for grounding oneself in the absence of deep breathing. For me these experiments with the Wim Hof method have brought to light a core component of health and vitality that was inhibited due to prolonged stress and trauma.

As I observe my breathing I now recognise that familiar feeling as the freeze response in action, attempting to still and reduce all movement and activity, out of a primal instinct for self-preservation.

Diet and exercise – the anxiety connection

The relationship between body weight and diet is physically simple yet psychologically complex.

What I mean by “physically simple” is that when we overeat regularly our bodies store excess energy as fat, and if we stop overeating our weight returns to normal.

But this simple relationship becomes complex because many of us eat for the rich and varied pleasures and distractions eating brings. What typically drives this search for pleasure and distraction is our underlying negative emotion.

So although we might wish we could lose weight, our actions are driven by a deeper desire to avoid and escape unpleasant feelings and the thoughts that prompt them.

When we try to modify our eating habits without acknowledging our underlying motivation to keep overeating, we experience inner conflict and struggle.

Where does exercise fit into this?

Once again it is physically simple – at least on paper. Exercise uses energy and the more energy we use the sooner we return to a normal weight (assuming we also stop overeating).

Parallel to weight loss is an improved physique. Most of us wanting to lose weight also want improvements in how we look and feel, and in our health and fitness. Weight loss through diet alone doesn’t necessarily improve these other facets of health and aesthetics.

So we are encouraged to hit the gym, go running or cycling, “get moving” to enhance our weight loss and also build our health and improve our appearance.

Physically simple. Psychologically, not so much. And here, at least for me, is the reason why:

Exercise is supposed to feel good. Moving your body is supposed to feel good.

But for as long as I can remember that hasn’t been the case for me.

Over the decades it’s gradually become clear that I am chronically tense as a result of anxiety and related problems. This tension causes fatigue as I attempt to go about my daily life while exerting unnecessary effort and internal resistance.

Tension arises from anxiety as part of the fight-or-flight response. Our muscles activate to prepare us to run away, or to stiffen up in response to physical attack.

Another layer of tension comes into play as we try to function normally despite this unpleasant fight-or-flight state. For example, anxiety may pull your body into a defensive, hunched posture. But feeling so defensive when there is no objective threat can make you self-conscious. And yet attempting to force a more “natural” posture only adds to the tension in your body.

Now imagine going for a walk or a run in that state. Imagine trying to lift weights in a crowded gym. Imagine trying to relax in a yoga class.

It’s not just about feeling tense and tired. It’s also about form. Good form is vital to effective exercise and physical activity that is sustainable and injury free.

But it can be very difficult to find and maintain correct form when various muscles in your body are activating in response to a state of anxiety and fear.

So what’s the answer?

As with dieting, the first step is to really accept that your mind and body are being pulled in different directions.

My ideal has been to find ways of achieving my goals without inner conflict. Inner conflict is inefficient, unpleasant, a waste of time and energy.

In my approach to dieting I essentially made peace with my conflicting desires and came to terms with the “hidden” motivations that turned dieting into a struggle.

I called my book “The Weight-Loss Paradox” because at the time making peace with my inner conflict meant that I stopped pushing against being overweight. I stopped trying. I stopped struggling.

But I did that with the deeper belief that there was a natural ideal that my body would align with, once I removed the sources of struggle and conflict.

When it comes to exercise the same dynamic is coming into focus. The fact that I don’t do “enough” exercise is not a problem to be solved or a failing to be overcome. Physical activity is meant to be enjoyable and natural. Pushing myself to exercise more doesn’t really make sense when, in an ideal world, I would naturally want to be active and I would find excuses to be more active.

And when we take into account my anxiety and physical tension it makes perfect sense why I do not spontaneously exercise more, or make good-feeling plans to be more physically active.

My body’s current state of being reflects a fight-or-flight response that overrides the natural enjoyment of physical activity. It’s an undiagnosed complaint of which physical inactivity is just a symptom. I’ve been told for years that my problem was not doing enough exercise; but that’s just a symptom or side-effect of the actual problem.

At rest I can actually feel the tension in my body, pulling me into a closed, defensive posture. Getting up to do exercise has no appeal because my body is preoccupied with this stressful and burdensome physical response.

I can’t immediately turn it off. I can’t simply relax right now. But I can at least stop adding to the pain and struggle by demanding I be physically active. I can stop beating myself up for not imitating other people’s lifestyles and exercise regimens and relaxed way of being.

And this is the path to de-escalating the fight-or-flight response and anxiety itself. Being okay with what’s going on in my body takes a whole lot of unnecessary stress out of the equation. Analogous to not beating yourself up for being overweight or for overeating…because whatever is going on within you did not happen overnight and is obviously not under your immediate conscious control.