Square Breathing and Adrenalin Overload

Seagull against the sky

You may have found yourself in a very stressful situation, where you've become overloaded with adrenalin. There are many symptoms you might experience - for example, you might sweat, find you are rushing about, have tingling sensations in your arms or legs, need the loo urgently, tremble, have palpitations and even chest pains, have a feeling you're going to die... You can see why you might end up in hospital with these symptoms!

However, assuming your heart is fine, you can recognise that these are all symptoms of an adrenalin overload. Imagine your body's a bucket(!) What's happened is that, because your basic stress levels were high, your adrenalin and cortisol levels were up to the brim of the bucket. Something extra happened and your bucket overflowed...

Some people describe this a panic attack but I prefer to call it an adrenalin overload as it makes it less mysterious.

If you're feeling anxious reading this, click here to jump straight to Square Breathing and come back later!


It honestly is adrenalin causing these symptoms!

I know from personal experience that the symptoms are caused by adrenalin. I've suffered panic attacks in my time but I was sitting relaxed in the dentist's chair when I felt the sudden familiar horrible rush, which really confused me. (By the way, I like going to the dentist as I think of it as a beauty treatment, so it was nothing to do with that). I mentioned how I was feeling to the dentist who explained they put adrenalin in with the local anaesthetic to make it work better. So I experienced an adrenalin overload when I was relaxed! It made it very clear to me that the symptoms were due to adrenalin and nothing else.

Dealing with adrenalin overload

So how do you deal with adrenalin overload? Well, obviously, in the longer term you need to make sure you bucket isn't already full - using all the ideas in this course will reduce your adrenalin and cortisol and raise your serotonin level, changing the contents of your bucket and helping you to feel calmer.

However, we're talking about right in the moment. The very first thing that helps is to recognise it's just adrenalin overload. If you think back to what you learned about adrenalin, you'll remember that it's the flight or fight hormone - great for mammoth attacks but not so helpful if it's a large utility bill or bad news.

What often happens is that you start panting, priming you to fight or run away. You're breathing in too much, not breathing out enough and mess up the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. This alarms your body even more and it releases more adrenalin. You need a quick way to break the cycle. That's where square breathing can help.

Square breathing

You'll find squares or rectangles almost everywhere - doors, light switches, pieces of paper, the edges of cushions, mirrors, posters, gates and fences. Unless you're in a rain forest, there'll be something with four sides nearby. They don't have to be the same length, just four of them joined together and you simply need to be able to count to four at a slow regular speed...
  • Starting at the end of one side, count to 4 slowly as your eye follows the line of that side, slowly breathing in at the same time.
  • turn the corner and count to 4 slowly as your eye follows that line, pausing your breathing
  • Now turn the corner again and count to 4 slowly as your eye follows that line, breathing all the way out
  • turn the corner again and count to 4 slowly as your eye follows that line, pausing your breathing again
  • turn the corner and you'll be back at the beginning so start again
You can see this in action on the next page...

...and you'll find out more about adrenalin overload in the Library.