Just take a deep breath. You’ve probably heard that before. I know I have. And sometimes I was less than thrilled by that suggestion-the implication that I could simply breathe to help whatever stress or anxiety popped up in my life. I was once a skeptic, but am now a firm believer in utilizing my breath as a tool. It has helped me manage my moments of anxiety in a way that feels empowering. Today, I am inviting you to try it out.
First, let’s look at the facts-the science behind why this really works! When we perceive danger our body instinctively reacts by engaging our Sympathetic Nervous System: our heart rate increases, we begin to take in more oxygen, adrenaline floods our blood stream, our digestive system goes on hold-we prepare to fight, flight, or freeze. This is a good thing, usually! We are automatically, unconsciously preparing to quickly jump out of the way of speeding train. The problem arises when we perceive danger but there is no actual danger. Hello anxiety! Our body and brain are reacting the same way to our anxiety as they do the danger of a speeding train.
What do we do to return our body to a calm state after we are safely out of the way of the train or have recognized that our anxiety has riled us up? We work to engage our Parasympathetic Nervous System. Our Parasympathetic Nervous System slows our heart rate and brings us back to a relaxed state. By breathing deeply into our diaphragm we send a signal to our brain that there is no danger so the Sympathetic Nervous System can step back, welcoming the body to relax.
So now that you know the evidence that supports this wonderful tool, let me give you some easy exercises to practice.
First, while you practice allow your focus to be solely on the breath. Whether that is how the air feels as it passes in and out of your nostrils or the feeling of the breath lifting your belly or focusing on counting inhales and exhales. Invite your mind to stay present with aspects of the breathwork and letting other thoughts that might arise simply drift away. It’s normal to have thoughts interrupt this process. The goal is to notice when this happens and kindly guide your attention back to the breath. When I notice my mind has drifted into thoughts, I like to name the thought then visualize it drifting away on a cloud. You can practice these three exercises anywhere and in any position. For a more grounding experience, I recommend lying on your floor, your bed, or outside on a nice grassy spot. Once you’ve settling into a position, here are three exercises to try:
1. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest to help you feel the breath flow through your body. Before taking your first breath, try exhaling out all the stale air that might be leftover in your body. If accessible to you, inhale through your nose and try exhaling out through your mouth. Find what feels best for you. Slowly inhale, feeling your belly rise and slowly exhale feeling your belly soften. This is the type of breath that will signal to your brain that it is okay to relax, that there is no danger. When we breathe rapid, short breaths we are not signaling our body to calm down. On the contrary, we are actually telling it to stay activated. So practice slowly inhaling and slowly exhaling.
2. Try counting your inhales and exhales. This can give your mind something to focus on if it tends to drift. Try inhaling for a slow count of three, pausing at the top of your inhale then exhaling for a count of three and again pausing before your next inhale. Play with extending your exhales longer than your inhales. Maybe inhale for the count of three then exhale for the count of five. Explore what count feels best for your body. Again, those exhales are important as they release that held tension.
3. Pair movement with your breath. Start seated or standing, hands extended down next to your sides. With your inhale, slowing raise your arms up until they are extended above your head, fingers towards the sky (maybe palms touch) then exhale slowly as your arms return back down to your sides. Repeat a few rounds.
Note- If you begin to feel lightheaded at any time, take a break and breathe normally. Returning when you’re ready.
These exercises can be practiced anywhere. You can discreetly focus on your breath while sitting at your desk at work or during a bumpy landing on your next flight. I also encourage you to try this practice throughout your day, not just saving it for when you might feel anxious. Try a few diaphragmatic breaths before you get out of bed in the morning, before you eat a meal, or before you go to sleep at night. Get used to the breathing techniques that work best for you so you are very familiar with them and can easily access them in moments of anxiety or stress.
Best part? No special tools or skills needed. Just you and your breath.