Discover how mindful breathing can calm and centre us when feeling distressed
Today I have taken many mindful breaths. Intentionally focusing on the feeling of my body breathing as I listened to the news informing me of the latest Covid19 case numbers or the rules of lockdown.
The situation seems unreal and real at the same time.
Outside the sun shines, birds sing and the planet spins. All seems normal but staying inside like this isn’t usual and the reports in the media are upsetting.
Anchoring myself to the present moment, I ride the waves of the breath as it moves in and out of my body. Its rhythm calms me.
I know that’s why I am doing it.
Mindfulness is an embodied practice. I live not just in my head but in my body too. I can sense when I am becoming tense or upset and I understand that certain types of thinking can set off a physiological and chemical response inside.
Once triggered, a feedback loop might be created that could get me locked into thoughts and feelings of distress which are not going to help me or change the situation.
Instead I drop my attention out of my head down into my body where I can attend to my breath as it comes in and as it leaves.
When we feel worried or anxious it isn’t just thoughts that race; our nervous system does too as it prepares to keep us safe.
Our heart beats faster to move oxygen to where it will be needed most, we might feel butterflies in our stomach as digestion is curbed saving vital energy and the thinking part of the brain is switched off.
When threatened who needs to think about what kind of tiger is in front of us?
We just need to act.
The response is hardwired inside.
It’s our very own internal alarm system that spurs us into action. When it’s a tiger it’s really useful when it’s numbers on the news, not so much.
With the thinking part of the brain down, I cannot reason with my body’s response. And anyway, it is really hard to convince yourself that all is OK, when inside due to the automatic fight-flight response you’re feeling “not safe, not safe, not safe, do something, do something, do something”.
So I go to my breath.
I use the same internal system that super charges me in times of danger to keep my thinking brain online and remain calm. In other words, I use the body to calm the mind.
I intentionally take my attention into my body, connect with the sensations of breath and begin to breathe consciously.
3 mindful breathing exercises
If you search online, you will find lots of breathing exercises to try. Below are three practices that I use to keep myself present and my system calm.
Before you try them explore where you most easily feel the breath in the body, this will give your mind something to anchor on during the practice.
For example, during the inhale you might notice the cool sensations in and around the nostrils, the expansion at the belly or the rise of the chest and shoulders and on the exhale, the warmth at the nostrils or relaxation of the body.
Once you have found your breath try the breathing exercises below. In each case breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Tip! Imagine you are sipping your breath with your inhale, no need to rush this we are wanting to calm the system so easy does it. Breathe out slowly with your mouth slightly open.
Tip! I use my fingers to count rounds.
Tip! Do not attempt to do lots of rounds to start with. Better to do a few, many times a day rather than one long session.
1) Focus on the exhale. I regularly share this one when talking about stress management. Each time you exhale repeat silently to yourself the number one. So, inhale slowly, exhale slowly, "one". This counts as one round. Try 6 rounds to start.
2) Box breathe. I learned this one from someone in the forces, he had been taught to use it in challenging situations to remain calm. Here the breath is divided into four parts - inhale, pause, exhale, pause. Each part is done for an equal amount of time.
The general pattern is 4-4-4-4. Slowly breathe in through your nose for the count of 4, gently pause for 4, breathe out for the count of 4, pause again for a count of 4. This counts as one round. Try 4 rounds to start.
3) Double the time it takes to exhale. This one is a yogic breathing exercise. It is sometimes called the healing breath. Here the breath is in three parts - inhale, pause, exhale.
The usual pattern is 4-7-8. Slowly inhale through your nose for a count of 4, pause for 7, exhale for 8. If you find the pause overly long, adjust accordingly but keep the ratio the same. Try 4 rounds to start.
Let me know how you get on in the comments.
Take care of you.
If you haven't tried controlled breathing before, you might find you get dizzy. It's quite normal. If that happens then don't continue with the practice and sit quietly for a minute or two until you feel better. You can always try it again another day.
If you are not comfortable paying attention to your breathing there are other ways to settle and ground yourself in the present moment to help the body's system calm down.
You might choose to attend to the sensations of where your body comes in contact with what supports you (seat or feet) or listening to sounds around you.
You could use a different sense choosing to eat or drink something whilst paying full attention to the process or stroking an object or pet.
The key is to feel into the senses, like tuning in to a radio station, not thinking about what you are doing but sensing it.
Ma, Xiao et al. “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 8 874. 6 Jun. 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874