Take a Deep Breath
Has this ever happened to you? You are in the middle of a very stressful moment or you are feeling so angry or sad or stressed that you could just burst, when someone close to you oh-so-helpfully suggests, “You should just take a deep breath and calm down.” Your knee-jerk reaction might involve shouting expletives or punching the nearest wall. Don’t worry, I know you are much too civilized to do either of those things, but I would not fault you for having a strong response.
As annoying as it is to admit, that age-old advice is actually correct. When we are upset, our rational brain and our emotional brain tend to disconnect. Guess which part of your brain reacts first? Yep, emotions have the edge here. This is why we can’t “think” ourselves out of the grief process. Even years after experiencing a trauma or deep grief, our nervous system retains and continues to relive the painful memories. Unless our rational brain gets the message that the negative event is over, and we are now safe, our bodies continue to secret stress hormones that keep us on the defensive.
One way we can learn to regulate difficult emotions is by using mindfulness techniques to increase awareness of our bodies, anchor ourselves in the present, and breathe in an intentional way. Just the simple act of taking a few slow deep breaths, each one followed by a long exhale, is often enough to calm our endlessly spinning, worrisome thoughts about the past and the future.
Seems too easy: how does this work?
To understand why this is the case, we need to investigate the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that originates in the brain stem. The ANS includes two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) serves as the body’s gas pedal, because it regulates adrenaline and the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) performs more like a brake, slowing the heart rate and signalling muscles to relax.
When we inhale, the SNS is activated, so our heart speeds up a bit. Then, when we exhale, the PNS triggers the relaxation response. This balanced system is usually outside of our conscious awareness, but we can strengthen our ability to regulate our emotions by mindfully paying attention to our breathing, especially the out-breath.
Quick and easy breathing practice: try it now
Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed for the next few minutes. Without judgement, take note of any tension you are feeling in your body. For the sake of this exercise, sensations are not necessarily good or bad, they are simply present or not present.
Set the timer on your phone for 1 minute.
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. Notice how your hands move when you breathe.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, while counting slowly from 1 to 4.
Exhale as you count slowly from 1 to 5.
Repeat this cycle until the timer sounds. If your thoughts drift, that’s okay, just return to counting the length of each in-breath and out-breath.
After the timer sounds, let your hands rest in your lap. What do you notice about areas of tension in your body now? Has anything changed?
This is just one technique I use to help myself and my clients cope with trauma and grief. The simple act of breathing with intention helps us regain our footing so that we can more effectively work through the recovery process. You can use this skill anytime and anywhere you are feeling stressed or anxious. Try it and let me know how it works for you!
“Learning how to breathe calmly and remaining in a state of relative physical relaxation, even while accessing painful and horrifying memories, is an essential tool for recovery ...The more you stay focused on your breathing, the more you will benefit.“ - Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
If you want to practice further, I highly recommend this simple, no-cost, ad-free app designed by the US Department of Veteran Affairs:
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