Posted by Mary Hildenbrand PhD
Step 1: Breathe
I’m about to give away my number one anxiety-reducing secret for free. I can’t even tell you how many times I have explained this strategy to clients experiencing their first panic attack, going through a stressful time, or simply feeling exhausted by the demands of their day. Before I tell you, though, I must warn you that sometimes even I get tired of hearing about deep-breathing techniques even though I know first and second-hand how effective they can be. Often, however, people simply try to take a few deep breaths in the middle of a stressful moment and, understandably, it doesn’t make a huge difference. And then it’s discouraging to try again because it didn’t work the first time.
A few tweaks can make all the difference. The type of deep-breathing technique that I recommend most often to my clients includes the following elements:
-Extend your exhale so it is longer than your inhale (more on this later) -Breathe in and out of your nose (with your mouth closed) -Imagine your lungs fully expanding and deflating so that your belly moves in and out AND your shoulders move up and down. -Do ten of these breaths (or about a minute) multiple times during the day when you are in transition during your day (commuting to work, waiting for a lecture to start, using the bathroom, or sitting in a waiting room).
The main reason for extending your exhale is because this is your body’s way of letting go of excess stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. You may have noticed that, during particularly stressful moments, we are prone to holding our breath or taking short, shallow breaths, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety. If you like to attach numbers to your breath, you can follow a 4-6-2 count of inhaling for 4, exhaling for 6, and holding for 2 before your next inhale. If you prefer an image, you could imagine your exhale stretching out like a piece of caramel or a rubber band. Either way, the main idea is simply extending your exhale a little bit with each breath that you take.
When you take these breaths is just as important as how you do them. Why do we recommend that you slow down your breathing during moments of transition? For those who are prone to being anxious, anxiety can train our brain to focus on the future instead of the present moment. Not in a fun, dreaming about the future kind of way, but a worried, tense, “What could go wrong?” kind of way. So instead of sitting in a waiting room and trying to anticipate what could happen next and planning exactly how you will word something, it’s much more effective to calm yourself down and use your breath to let go of that nervous energy. A bonus is that, if you do this multiple times a day, you will conserve energy and not be as exhausted by the end of the day. So, if you’re realizing that stress and anxiety are using up most of your energy and you end up collapsing on the couch at the end of the day, this deep-breathing technique is a great place to start. One last note: this technique is most effective as a daily practice, rather than trying it only during high stress (or anxiety) moments.