6/11/2021 0 Comments
Chances are, if you’ve heard anything about stress management or anxiety relief, you’ve heard about deep breathing. Maybe you’re familiar with the fact that you can use deep breathing both to calm yourself when you’re feeling upset and as a regular practice for bringing your overall stress level down. Maybe you’ve even tried it a few times. But maybe you also only remember that deep breathing could have helped you after an intense moment is over. Perhaps you just forget that deep breathing is a stress management tool that’s available to you most of the time. Or perhaps you’re simply curious about why deep breathing is such a popular topic these days.
Regardless of what your previous experience is with deep breathing, you’re in the right place to explore this foundational tool for managing stress and discovering calm. In this post, we’ll walk through:
Why deep breathing?
When I was in therapy for anxiety during a particularly intense season in my life, the first task my therapist gave me was to begin practicing deep breathing. Why? Because I needed to decrease the intense physical alarm I was experiencing before I could meaningfully address the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that were triggering it. If I had tried to start with thinking my way out of my anxiety, I wouldn’t have gotten very far. My thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) had been usurped by my emotional brain (the limbic system) because something had triggered me to believe that I was in imminent danger – in my case it was relational conflict. Shifting out of that highly-activated state – both physically and emotionally – was the first step. The second would be to address the thoughts and beliefs that were behind my problematic anxiety.
To understand this more personally, consider a time when you were really upset. If there were people around you, how did they react? Did someone point out a flaw in your thinking, tell you to “just calm down!” or otherwise try to engage you in logic? Or did someone listen and empathize, let you know that your feelings were normal, or simply didn’t try to solve your problem? In either case, how did you feel in that moment? Did their comments help you calm down?
Deep breathing is just one of many ways to help calm your body and shift the balance towards calm, but it’s also possibly the most accessible. As long as you’re alive, you’re breathing, and as long as you’re conscious, you have some control over your breath. You don’t need any other supplies or props for deep breathing, and it’s not complicated to learn. There may be some instances when you’re too upset to control your breath – like if you’re sobbing or so tense that you can’t relax your diaphragm enough. These have both happened to me and, thankfully, there are other calming tools that will work in these situations, but they’re for another blog post. But much of the time, breathing is the simplest tool you have available.
Guiding your breath is also very discreet since most breath techniques will be invisible to any people around you. If you’re trying to calm some intense emotions, the last thing you’re likely to want is someone giving you a strange look or asking what you’re doing. And unlike physical poses like yoga or other mind-body integrated movements, deep breathing can be done comfortably in any space.
Deep breathing is also reasonably quick to work, though not instant. One deep breath will not take you from feeling like you’re about to lose your mind to the epitome of calm, but a solid 10 breaths (about 1 ½-2 minutes) can often do quite a lot towards that end. This is an important point to note because if you’re anything like me, a minute can seem like an eternity when your feelings are really intense. If you know that you need to get to ten breaths before you’ll notice that you’re feeling better, you’re less likely to give up after 2 or 3 even when your panicked brain is telling you it’s not working fast enough.
And finally, deep breathing is an important place to start because it can be easily paired with other techniques and tools both for calming our minds and bodies and for addressing the roots of the stress and anxiety we’re experiencing. Mind-body integrated movements, essential oils or other smells that stimulate the olfactory nerve, other self-care methods, and even the deeper inner work where we address the root causes of our stress can be easily paired with deep breathing.
It’s important to note that deep breathing and other calming tools can help our bodies and minds return to a calmer physical state, but if we continue the same stressful thought patterns that got us to that state to begin with, we’ll end up there again soon. For example, if you’re feeling tense and anxious because you’re running late, you can use deep breathing to help you calm down. However, if you don’t address the underlying beliefs that upset you in the first place, your thoughts will quickly trigger the tense and anxious feelings again. In this example, perhaps you believe (maybe not even consciously) that running late means you’re letting someone down, and letting someone down means you’re a bad person. You need to follow up your physical calming tools with some deep mental work where you re-direct your thoughts to stop the cycle of excessive stress. In this case, perhaps after calming down with breathing, you would practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes and runs late sometimes. You might also remind yourself that running late does not make you a bad person (and in fact, is not even seen as a problem in some cultures). You might follow up your self-compassion with some actions that will help you deal with your mistake, like apologizing to the person you’ve kept waiting and planning ways to help yourself be on time the next time. Using these mental tools to guide your thoughts will keep you from spiraling back to “but I’m keeping my friend waiting and that’s terrible!” and the excessive stressful feelings those thoughts produce.
How does deep breathing work?
Breath techniques, including deep breathing, have been practiced for thousands of years including in the traditions of yoga (pranayama), Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. In addition, current scientific research also indicates that deep breathing improves both mood and the effects of of stress (1, 2).
To understand how deep breathing works physiologically, we need to understand how the stress response works in our bodies. First, it’s important to understand that stress itself is not bad or harmful and in fact can be enhancing to our bodies and minds when it’s used well. Our bodies are designed to shift from a calm state into the stress response when we perceive a threat, and for social and emotional stress, we experience stress when there’s a threat to something or someone we care about. If we didn’t care so deeply, which is a profoundly important human trait, we wouldn’t experience the stress.
For example, consider that someone, somewhere in the world is likely to have gotten a paper cut today. How do you feel about that? Now imagine that your toddler just got a paper cut and is crying in front of you. Does that change how you feel? You’re likely to feel a heightened sense of stress (remember, it’s not a bad thing) when your toddler gets a paper cut than when someone you have no connection with gets a paper cut because you deeply care for and love your toddler. As you can see, stress is actually a very important part of how our bodies and minds work. (3)
Physical, social or emotional stress becomes damaging when it begins to interfere with the overall wellbeing and functioning of our bodies and minds and when the behavior we choose in response to the stress takes us further from what we care about rather than closer. This is often the case for high levels of long-term stress, like feeling overwhelmed by a constantly-busy schedule, rather than a stress response that dissipates after a short-term situation is over, such as taking an important test. Deep breathing and other calming tools help return our bodies to the calm state after the stress response is no longer needed. These tools can also help us maintain a lower level of chronic stress in our lives when we practice them regularly while we’re not experiencing acute stress.
We can think about how the stress response works in our bodies by considering our autonomic nervous system, or ANS, which regulates several body processes, like blood pressure, digestion, and breathing rate, without our conscious effort (4). Of all the body processes that the ANS regulates, the one that we can bring under conscious control is our breath.
Our ANS has two main modes: the “rest-and-digest” mode (also called parasympathetic), which controls our bodies during ordinary situations, and the “fight-flight-or-freeze” mode (sympathetic), which prepares our bodies for stressful situations or emergencies. The vagus nerve, which begins in the brain stem and ends in the lower abdomen in the diaphragm and large intestine, is part of the “rest-and-digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system. When we intentionally breathe deeply, sending our breath down to the lower parts of our lungs, we stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve stimulation signals to our body to shift into the “rest-and-digest” (parasympathetic) state and calm down.
How exactly do I breathe deeply?
So, now that we’ve covered why deep breathing is an important foundational tool and how it works in our bodies, how exactly do you do it?
First, choose a time when you’re not feeling highly stressed or anxious to experiment and discover how deep breathing feels in your body. Find a comfortable place to sit or stand where your spine can be mostly straight. If possible, you don’t want to be hunched over, which will compact your lungs and make deep breathing more difficult.
Then, pay attention to the area just beneath your bellybutton. This is the spot you want to think of sending your breath towards. You can place a hand there, if you like, to help you focus on expanding and contracting in that lower part of your lungs.
Take a slow breath in through your nose until your lungs are comfortably filled, and let it release naturally, again through your nose. When you inhale, imagine sending the breath all the way down to those deepest parts of your lungs. Allow yourself to relax during the exhales – let your shoulders settle and allow your mind to let go. You might whisper quietly or think to yourself, “relax,” “let go, ”or another word or phrase that you find helpful. Keep this up for at least 10 breaths. Then, notice how you feel. Has anything changed? If you like, keep going for another 10 breaths, and again check in with how you’re feeling.
You can use this breathing technique in the moments when you’re feeling stressed or anxious as well. The key is that you must first notice that you’re feeling upset, and then remember to use this tool to help you feel better. A simple self-awareness practice like this one can help you develop your ability to recognize when you’re in an overly-stressed state, and regular breathing practice when you’re not feeling upset can help you remember to use deep breathing when you do feel stressed. At the end of this article, I’ve provided a simple, step-by-step guide to practicing deep breathing over the next week so you can begin to make it a go-to tool when you’re feeling overly stressed.
One thing to note when you’re feeling upset: it might take several breaths to relax enough to send the breath down toward your bellybutton rather than having it stay mostly in your chest. This is totally normal since chest breathing is part of the typical physiological stress response, like we talked about earlier. You might consider doing more than one set of 10 breaths in this case, or using another tool first.
So far, we’ve been discussing the basic idea of breathing deeply into the lower part of your lungs, but there are specific breath techniques that build on this idea as well, including controlling the length of the inhale and exhale, holding the breath for a number of counts, breathing through one nostril at a time, and others. One of my favorites, in the video below, is the Long Exhale.
The Long Exhale
The Long Exhale is a deep breathing technique where you simply make your exhale longer than your inhale. For example, you might breathe in for 3 slow counts and out for 6, like in the video below. I’ve found the Long Exhale particularly helpful for calming my mind and body to get ready for sleep, and I also like to use it while driving since it’s extra simple and completely hands-off. Follow along with me to try it out for yourself in the video!
A simple plan for practice
It’s wonderful that you’re reading this article, learning all about deep breathing and even trying out the Long Exhale with me in the video above. But we can have tons of knowledge about tools that we know help us feel better and yet never experience their benefits if we don’t actually use them in our daily lives. Practicing the tools, even (especially?) when we’re feeling just fine, helps us both to experience their longer-term benefits and to remember to pull them out in those moments of intense stress.
Practicing is also the hardest part. Learning information about something is usually a finite, contained activity, but practicing takes consistency and perseverance. One way to help ourselves succeed at doing something new, especially forming a new habit, is to make it ridiculously easy and simple. <reference Happiness Advantage book & Atomic Habits>
If you want to try out deep breathing in your daily life – and see if it’s something you want to make a habit – follow this path to set up a simple plan.
Deep breathing can be a powerful tool to guide us on the path towards calm. As we’ve seen, it has the advantage of being simple and accessible and works by helping signal to our body to turn off the stress response and turn on calm. I’d love to hear how your exploration of deep breathing helps you along in your discovery of calm!
Based also on material from:
my training at the Well-Grounded Institute
The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor (Amazon affiliate link*)
Atomic Habits, by James Clear (Amazon affiliate link*)
*The above Amazon affiliate links mean that, at no cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.
When my kids were preschoolers, I had the recurring experience that I would think I was doing fine, going about my day managing alright, and then one tiny thing would go wrong and I'd lose it. Maybe I'd trip on a toy, or the kids would start arguing, and out came all the frustration and stress that I had - unknowingly - been holding inside. I hadn’t developed the self-awareness to notice the more subtle signs that my mental state needed attention, and so when something tipped it over the edge, it took both me and everyone around me by surprise. I always regretted how I acted and what I said, but the scenario would inevitably repeat itself days or weeks down the road when the pressure of chronic stress had built up again.
When we start on a journey to bring more calm into our lives, to live more in connection with our true values and from a place of vibrant well-being, the very first step is always to become aware. Regardless of what we know about stress management or emotional regulation, no matter our knowledge of meditation or deep breathing, without awareness, it’s useless. We won’t use any of that knowledge or those tools to help free ourselves from the cycle of negative stress if we don’t know we’re stuck.
So how do we become more aware? One powerful way to cultivate awareness is to practice it. In this video, I’ll guide you through a simple, short self-awareness practice that you can use anytime. Build it into your day – whether it’s when you’re in the shower, every time you stop at a traffic light or wait for the bus, or while washing dishes, pausing for a moment to check in with yourself starts opening your awareness to all that’s happening inside. I invite you to practice it right now, along with me:
Taking a minute to check in with how you are in the present moment – in your body, your thoughts, your emotions, and your spirit – can be the beginning of a journey towards taking good care of all the parts of you. But whatever way you choose to do it, increasing your awareness is one of the necessary first steps on your path toward calm.
When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I would take regular walks around my neighborhood and admire the homes, the trees, and the gardens. It was an older neighborhood, so the styles and ages of the homes varied greatly, from craftsman to Tudor to ranch. But there was one house I passed most days that was always a little curious to me. Since the sidewalk came within just a few feet of the front door, I could see that on the windowsills and on the tables just inside were hundreds of little figurines, doo-dads, collectibles and the like. I wondered what stories each of those objects held, where they had come from, why the owner displayed them like she did. I'm sure those things held meaning and memories for her, invitations to reminisce and remember. But I also suspect they held dust and cobwebs, or if not, required no small effort each week to keep them clean. For me as an onlooker, the sight of all of them crowded together was so visually overwhelming that I quickly turned my gaze elsewhere and kept walking by. I never truly saw and appreciated even one of them, because there were too many.
Now, I want to be clear that I'm not against trinkets or collectibles or objects that hold significance and memories for us. And I also highly respect my neighbor's choices for her own home decor, whether or not I would choose the same. But what I did learn about myself and about life from that experience and many others is that more is not always (or even often) better.
That might sound rather obvious, but it's also deeply counter-cultural. It seems the message I hear, see, and feel so often is that more really is always better. Consumerism tells us that we'll be better off with more stuff, more money, more activities, more in our schedules; we're worth more when we accomplish more, produce more, know more. We keep consuming and producing and are told to just keep expanding our capacity when things start feeling tight. Get a bigger garage, a storage unit, a bigger house, or a bigger closet to store the expanding amounts of stuff. Sleep less and less and rely on caffeine to give you more hours in the day for more work, more productivity. It's a prevalent and seductive message, but it's based on deep insecurity and leads straight to overwhelm and burnout.
The truth is that we are, in fact, finite. We're human. We don't have unending capacity, in our garages, in our bodies, or in our minds. We need rest, we need empty space, we need freedom to focus on just one thing at a time, and sometimes to focus on nothing at all. Truly, this is good - it's how we're made. Perhaps we could work with that rather than against it? Trying to keep all the things in our minds and focus on everything that somebody somewhere said is important usually means our attention is so scattered that we miss everything. The tiny flower pattern on that beautiful, hand-blown glass piece from Venice is completely lost to our eyes and our hearts when 20 other glass figurines sit within a few inches, vying for our attention. And when we pile the stuff so thick in our garages, both literal and proverbial, we can't find anything when we need it.
You're invited to let some things go today, in your heart and mind and, possibly also, in your garage. Take a few moments to pause and be still. Sift through all the voices competing for your attention to find your own heart, mind, body, and spirit. In order to focus on the one next right thing, you have to set down, at least for a moment, all the other things, both good and distracting. Give yourself permission to do that, to say no, to prioritize - to shift out of overwhelm by letting go.
Once you've turned your attention to your own voice, if the thing you're drawn to focus on happens to be developing a habit of taking good care of yourself, I invite you to join me on Patreon. We focus on just one type of self-care tool each month, and you can choose how much or how little of your focus and energy you want to devote. There's an option for just one short video per month, all the way up to the full gamut - a longer live monthly practice, a monthly workbook, and two short videos per week. If this is the right step for you, I'd love to see you there. Whatever your next right thing is, I encourage you keep refining your focus, letting some things go, and aligning your schedule, your to-do list, and your garage with what your body, mind and spirit are leading you towards.
Just a few days from now will be the shortest day of the year - winter solstice. My city is already getting less than 8.5 hours of daylight, and often the daylight that we do have is obscured by clouds and sometimes rain as well. I feel it in my bones, the season's call towards rest, slowing down, drawing inward. I feel the nudge to gather closer the people closest to me and to enjoy the darkness. My body and my soul need more sleep right now, more calm, more quiet, more simplicity.
And yet I find it curious that, as the rhythms of the seasons and our bodies are slowing down, we as a culture ramp up our activity to such a frantic pace that December ends up being the collective busiest - and perhaps the most stressful - month of the year. In my own family, we do our best to keep things simple, but the added layer of even simple Advent activities, a couple Christmas parties and services, and a few gifts to buy or make seems too much at times. When our natural rhythms are bidding us to slow down, to take a pause from our full lives and let some things go, adding even a little more can feel like a defiant neglect of our deepest needs.
If I take an honest look inward, I find what I truly need is more reading books on the couch with my family and less driving them around town, more moments enjoying the glittery ornaments lit by tiny white lights on our Christmas tree and less moments checking and re-checking my gift lists, more open space for joy and less hurrying through the present moment just to get to the next. The beauty of these needs is that when I attend to them, when I care deeply for myself by honoring them, I have so much more to give to the people around me, especially more of the gifts I truly want to give this season - love, kindness, peace, presence.
But when everything around us seems to have succumbed to frenzy, how can we possibly stay grounded? Or when we've inevitably gotten caught up in the swirling tide, how do we come back to ourselves?
I've thought about this for a while, and back in November when thankfulness was in the air, I wondered if gratitude might be a simple way to re-ground in this season. When the advertisements and messaging are all about what we're lacking - whether it's items we or someone on our gift lists "needs" or gift-giving obligations we're "required" to meet - perhaps a return to gratitude could bring a little clarity. Interestingly, I've noticed this underlying theme in several nooks and crannies here on the internet this December. Just today, gratitude was the theme in my Yoga with Adriene morning practice, and in my email was an invitation to a gratitude cleanse for the week after Christmas. I've personally decided to commit to a simple gratitude practice during the two weeks of my kids' winter break. I'll be noting three things I'm grateful for each day and sharing a few of my gratitudes over on social media (follow along or participate on Facebook or Instagram!).
What will you do to rest and reset in the midst of the remaining weeks of this year? Will you take a moment now to assess how you might kindly attend to your needs? Perhaps a simple practice, such as naming gratitudes, could be a way to nourish your soul and allow you to give your best self to those you'll be with this season.
It’s mid-autumn in my corner of the world. The leaves turned several weeks ago, and their glorious reds, golds, and oranges have mostly fallen to the ground and are quickly turning to brown. Up and down the street I hear the rattling hum of leaf blowers, working to clear the sidewalks, the roads, the yards. But in the park where I walk every morning the blowers haven’t yet made their mark. All the leaves are still in the places they fell, some pulverized by weekday morning feet making their way to school, some caught high in the blackberry vines, most covering every inch of the ground, already beginning to break down thanks to our resident composters, the fungi, bacteria and invertebrates.
It takes a long time for those leaves to decompose, to return to the earth as nutrient-rich soil. It will be winter, then spring, then summer and maybe even autumn again before their nutrients will be released, and even longer until they are taken up again by the trees from which they fell. And as I walked this morning, it occurred to me that our lives are similar. In our world saturated with promises of quick fixes and immediate gratification, perhaps we’ve lost sight of the organic, natural process of decomposition, whereby the things in our lives that die take their time to disintegrate, release their nourishment and join together to transform into something new.
An example from my own life: the death of productivity, or rather, the idolization of it, which at times has run me ragged and robbed me of any sense of joy. It was a year and a half ago that, in a session with my therapist, I had a profound experience deep in my being of choosing to set down productivity as my main driving force and instead to accept my worth as inherent rather than earned. Many, many moments and weeks and days and years of learning and choosing and accepting and letting go had preceded that moment, when those leaves finally released from the branches and fluttered off the tree. But it was only a few weeks ago that I turned my attention to my body and soul’s clear communication that I needed rest and chose to take a weekend retreat by myself. And it was yesterday morning that I, somewhat reluctantly, spent a couple hours reading on the couch when I felt my body needed to pause and slow down rather than just pushing through and getting the chores and other work done.
Those leaves of idolizing productivity, which served to protect me and sustain my life for many years even if at a huge personal cost, may have turned and fallen, but they haven’t immediately disappeared. They’re currently composting, bits and pieces of them laying around my life, my habits, my thoughts, my choices, slowly breaking down, returning their nourishment to the earth. I still try to pack too many things into some days, weeks, seasons. I still can feel overwhelmed by all the work there is to do in the world. I still get edgy when I heed the voices whispering that I haven’t done enough, accomplished enough, contributed enough. I still sometimes neglect my needs for rest, quiet, delight, and joy just to check one more box on the never-ending list.
But more often these days, I have glimpses of those nutrients taken back up by the tree, transformed, and budding into new life. I still work, produce, accomplish, check things off a list, but I’m finding joy in the work and much more clarity about what to do and what to say no to. I’m less driven, more open, more grateful. I’m more present to my children, more able to hold loving space for their feelings and experiences and whole selves to be known and accepted how they are as I learn to hold that space for myself. The change is both slow and deep, and for that I am grateful. The new leaves are tender and green, and the blossoms are just now budding.
What about you? Are there leaves in your life that have fallen and are currently composting? How will you extend patience, love, and acceptance to yourself in the transformation process? What new growth do you see beginning to bud and bloom?
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