Well-Being Tools – Calm Anxiety with the Breath

One of the first books to tout the stress-reducing qualities of relaxation was “The Relaxation Response,” written in 1975 by Herbert Benson—cardiologist, author, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Institute. The particular practice he described was sitting quietly for 10-20 minutes twice a day, repeating a word over and over again. Sounds suspiciously like meditation.

Since that time, there have been many forays into the realm of mind/body medicine and using the body’s natural capacities to move into a state of deep relaxation. These include explorations in the areas of breath, progressive relaxation, visualization, and meditation-all wonderful ways to use the power of the mind/body connection to increase your well-being.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring many of these modalities to help you find the ones that support you best in times of difficulty.

Why Now

The last sixteen months have created the perfect storm for an epidemic of anxiety. We’ve seen our loved ones get sick and even die, we’ve been stuck in our houses, and for many of us, we had to change the way we work. Then, after all of that, we’re told we can go out again. It’s more than a little confusing. My friends who are therapists are busier than ever and often have waitlists.

The message I would like to convey is that it’s okay not to feel okay. If you have a sense that you are about to slip your moorings, you are totally normal. This has been a super challenging time—and I, for one, have felt it deeply.

So, what to do with all of the angst and uncertainty? In this series on Tools for Well-Being, I’d like to share some of the things that have been helping me through these precarious times.

Today, I’d like to start with mindful breathing because no matter where you are, your breath is always with you, right here in the present moment.

The Breath

When I am super agitated, the first place I go is the breath because I can quickly alter my mood by changing my breathing. 

Have you ever noticed that you breathe faster, sigh, gasp, or even stop breathing when you are in the throes of negative emotions? If not, that is normal too; when we are mad or afraid, the last thing we are thinking about is our respiration. So, the next time you are angry or afraid, bring your attention to your breath to see what is happening. The first step in any intervention is awareness (read: mindfulness).

Once you become aware of your breathing, you are already two steps in the right direction because you are now positioned to take action. 

Now, focus on your breathing. What is happening right now? Are you breathing fast or slow, deeply or shallowly? Is your breath even or ragged, coming in gulps or gasps? Simply by bringing your awareness to the quality of your breath, you may start to notice a change in the way you feel.

Want to keep working with this? Here is a step-by-step intervention using your muscle of attention and your ability to shift your breathing pattern:

Calm Anxiety with the Breath

  1. Shift your attention to the present moment. What are you aware of in your body, your thoughts, and your emotions right now? Just let these experiences come and go.
  2. Bring the focus of your attention to the breath. Feel the sensations of breathing in and breathing out. Become aware of the tempo of the breath, the length of the breath, and the comfort or lack of comfort you feel in the breath. Notice where you feel the breath most easily—the breath in the belly, the chest, the nostrils, or anywhere that the breath makes itself known—and keep that more concentrated focus.
  3. Now begin to slow the breath down, breathing as fully and deeply as you can. 
  4. Next, begin to count to three on your in-breath and count to 5 on your out-breath. Make the counting comfortable for you. The important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale. Continue this counting until you feel the body and mind begin to calm.
  5. Now, shift your attention to your body. Become aware of sensations in the whole body, sitting with the whole body.
  6. As you are ready, bring your attention back to the room. Notice if you are feeling a sense of more spaciousness.

Stay tuned for other ways to work with your emotions and your mind with mindfulness and self-compassion.

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