Breathing is such an essential but often overlooked part of our daily functioning. It is surprising to note the number of clients I’ve worked with who are not aware of what constitutes the “correct” way to breathe. Given that we spend our entire lives performing this largely unconscious activity, surely we owe it to ourselves to ensure we are doing it in the best and most efficient way possible! An entire article can be certainly be devoted to the merits of correct breathing but it can be distilled down to the following:
reduces your stress/anxiety level
Increases clarity of mind/thought
improves your immune system
strengthens parasympathetic nervous system response (i.e. the part of your nervous system responsible for reducing arousal and regulating relaxation)
promotes optimal functioning of internal organs
As you can see, there are many other health benefits apart from just lowering your anxiety. Anyway, let’s move on to how to breathe properly. There are three principles which I have found helpful to remember in controlled breathing – (1) breathe SLOWLY, (2) breathe DEEPLY, (3) if you can, try to keep your exhale slightly longer than your inhale. There are many breathing techniques out in the market but I want to draw your attention to two of them.
First is what I call the 'standard method' which is simply slowing the in-breath and out-breath to roughly the same interval. Work on your pace until you are able to take about 5 seconds to take a full breath in, and about 5-7 seconds to completely breathe out. It is important to ensure that the speed of your inhale (i.e. breath in) is roughly the same as the speed of your exhale (i.e. breath out). If you start getting light-headed, it may be that you’re pushing yourself too hard. Make sure you find a pace that is comfortable for you (e.g. 3 seconds in, and 3 seconds out), then gradually work your way up. Perform this breathing method for about 3-5 mins at a time, then notice the differences in your body! It is essential that you practice and apply this breathing pattern whether or not you are feeling anxious at the time, so you can condition your body to breathe at a slower rate regardless. One thing I have found is that a lot of people with anxiety issues tend to use their chest a lot when breathing. Always strive to use your diaphragm, and not your chest! This allows better control of each breath and requires less energy too.
The second method of controlled breathing is the 4-7-8 technique which picked up from Dr Andrew Weil (who was incidentally in the list of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in 2014). Basically, as the name implies, you take 4 seconds to breathe in, hold your breath for 7 seconds, then breathe out for 8 seconds. Dr Weil recommends that people only perform this sequence for 4 cycles at a time. In the following video, Dr Weil explains and demonstrates this particular technique and discusses its benefits.
Tip: It is helpful to stop at various times during the day to check on your breathing (especially those times when you are under pressure or in a hurry) to make sure that you are maintaining a slow and steady breathing rhythm as much as possible. As time goes on, you will naturally begin to develop a keen sense of awareness and control over your anxiety-related physical sensations
Think about an image of a positive experience you have had of a place that gives you a feeling of safety or calmness before. (As a rule, it should not be a place where any unpleasant things have happened. If negative feelings emerge while doing the exercise, then stop immediately). Close your eyes and bring up a picture of that place and notice any other sensory experiences that go with it (e.g. smell, sounds, tastes and touch). Notice any sensations that come up in your body in various areas like the chest, arms, head, stomach and legs. Once you have got in touch with those positive feelings, think of a word that goes with that feeling such as “peace”, “freedom” or “relaxation”. Then close your eyes again and bring up the picture, notice the feelings and say the word in your mind. After a short while, open your eyes and repeat this process a few times until you feel a strong connection between the image, positive feelings and the word. Practise the Safe/Calm Place exercise daily even when you’re not anxious so it will work well for you when you need it to. Once you have developed your Safe/Calm Place, all you need to do is bring up the image together with the word you associated, and those feelings of relaxation and calmness should re-emerge in your body. The video clip on the right is an example of a safe place that an EMDR client came up with.
This technique is taken from EMDR (as developed by Francine Shapiro) and can help you (a) decreased unpleasant feelings/sensations in your body; and (b) reduce the intensity of unpleasant feelings in your body. How it works is simply by tapping alternately between your left and right parts of your body while you are seated comfortably. For example, you can tap your left thigh followed by your right thigh in alternate fashion. The key is to keep tap slowly (about 1 tap per second) and do not tap more than 5 to 6 sets (i.e. which is 10 to 12 taps). This is because long and fast sets of tapping may bring up unpleasant feelings as found during EMDR therapy. Another way you can do bilateral stimulation is called a Butterfly Hug. To do this, cross your arms in front of you with your right hand touching your left shoulder and left hand touching your right shoulder. Then tap alternately again in the same pattern described above. (This is a great exercise for children too!). If you start to find your level of distress or unpleasant feelings increasing, it would be advisable to stop the exercise immediately. Below is a clip explaining and demonstrating the Butterfly Hug.
Bilateral stimulation can also work through the auditory sense. Below is an example of what it would sound like. You will need a pair of headphones while watching the clip below to properly notice the binaural movement of the music with your ears.
Tip: You can also hold the image of the Safe/Calm Place in mind (from the second exercise) and the word you associated with it. When you get the pleasant feelings, begin either form of bilateral stimulation (i.e. alternate tapping method or auditory method) for a while then stop and check how you feel. If the positive sensations increase, then perform another round of bilateral stimulation, stop and take notice again of your feelings. If you do not find bilateral stimulation helpful, then just use one of the earlier ideas.