Everyone experiences anxiety or a sense of overwhelm from time to time. This can be especially true for Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs), who can become overstimulated more easily due to a more “finely-tuned” nervous system. Additionally, folks with PTSD or complex trauma can feel anxious and overwhelmed, especially when triggered or due to being hyper-alert. This series will include tools and techniques that I often explain and practice with my clients to support them in settling their nervous system, increasing relaxation, and feeling more grounded, calm and present. Each post in the series will have one or a few strategies to practice. If used regularly, it can support you in better managing your emotions and quieting your mind.
Breathing, although simple and natural, remains a key component for becoming more present and relaxed. I once heard a phrase that has stuck with me*: “You cannot breathe in the past nor in the future, you can only breathe right now in the present moment.” So, when we focus on the breath, it allows us to become more centered and in the here and now.
One of the first things I ask clients when teaching strategies for creating calm and relaxation is, “Do you know how to take deep breaths?” This initially seems like a silly question, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t realize that they are not actually breathing deeply and fully. Many people breathe only from their chest/lungs, which is more shallow breathing. Deep breathing engages the belly as well (sometimes deep breathing is called “belly breathing” for this reason). When we are anxious, nervous or going into a “survival mode” (fight/flight/freeze) our bodies take more shallow breaths. By taking deep breaths, we slow our bodies down, decrease our heart rate and signal to the brain that everything is OK.
Shallow vs Deep Breathing
To tell if you are breathing deep or shallow, close your eyes or soften your gaze down, place one hand over your belly and one hand over your chest. Take a breath in. Do you feel your hand over your belly rising as well? Or just the one over your chest? If just your chest is moving, your breathing is shallower. Practice belly breathing by taking a breath into your nose. As you do, imagine the air flowing through your nostrils, down your throat, through your lungs and down into your belly. Sometimes this can initially be difficult if your chest is feeling tight or constricted—keep at it. Then, slowly, exhale through your mouth. Extend the exhale so that there is no longer any air in your belly or lungs. The exhale is important, if you are using your breath to calm down.
When we breathe in, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system involved in fight/flight response. When we breathe out, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part that engages when the body is at rest. Think of when you are startled, you gasp in surprise (inhale) and when relieved, you sigh (exhale). So, extending the exhale is another way to tell your brain and body that you are relaxed, since you activate that part of the nervous system.
Sometimes counting can be helpful. It gives something for your mind to attend to other than anxiety-provoking or overwhelming thoughts, feelings or sensations. Some folks count their breaths (“breathe in one, breathe out one; breathe in two, breathe out two…”). Or they will use a mantra or positive statement such as: breathe in calm and relaxation, breathe out tension and stress; breath in peace, breathe out anxiety. You might even use visualizations if those are effective. For example: imagine your anxiety as a color and exhale that color as you breathe out, releasing it from your body.
Another strategy involving numbers is square breathing. This technique gives you something to focus on in order to become more present to the moment and quiet your mind. Think of a square: four sides, four corners. Closing your eyes or looking down, start by taking a deep breath in for 4 counts. Hold for 4 counts (with air in). Breathe out for 4 counts. Hold again for 4 counts (with air out). Then repeat the cycle 4 times.
You can also create your own breathing techniques and play around with elements of these strategies. What’s most important is that the breath is deep and that the technique works for you. Also, don’t give up if it’s not initially working. It takes practice to “re-train” your mind and body. A consistent practice in slowing yourself down is going to be most beneficial, rather than just trying to use it once in a while. You might practice when you are feeling calmer as well, to get a better sense of it. Just like training for a sport, you have to practice the skills first before using them in the big game.
If you are needing more help in gaining skills managing your anxiety or overwhelm, therapy can support you in developing additional tools and understanding yourself better. Contact me and we can discuss getting started in therapy for building a stronger, calmer foundation for yourself in dealing with trauma or stress.
*I apologize for not being able to give proper credit to the originator of this statement, as I cannot recall where I initially heard it.
Other posts in this series:
Links to additional posts in the series will be included here as they are added to the blog.