I’m sure you’ve all come across those scenes where the upset person is told to relax and take deep breaths. When you’re particularly anxious it’s not such a bad idea to follow the advice but filling your lungs with air a couple of times is really only part of the picture. If you’re prone to anxiety it’s actually more helpful to practice breathing as a technique and get used to using this regularly.
Breathing is such a natural function it may seem a little odd to find sometime writing about good and bad breathing techniques. You could say the same about relaxation and it’s really only when you compare what comes naturally with what can be taught and felt, that you really start to appreciate the differences.
First, test yourself to see how you breathe. Stand up straight and place one hand on your chest and the other towards the top of your stomach. Now take a deep breath and note which of your hands moves first.
A common problem in people who suffer with anxiety and/or panic is the way they breathe. Typically they breathe using just the upper part of their chest and often in a fairly shallow and sometimes rapid fashion. This alone can give rise to a feeling of constriction. A far better approach is to fill the lungs the way a bottle is filled with fluid - from the bottom to the top. So, if you felt your ‘chest’ hand moving first it time to make a few changes.
Give yourself a few minutes to practice. Get away from distractions and place your hands back over your chest and stomach areas. This time when you breathe in try to draw air deep into your body. Don’t just push your stomach out, you have to get to a point where your stomach moves first because of the way you are breathing. Some people get it first time, others need a bit more practice.
Begin by placing the palm of your hand just above the waistline of your stomach. Take four or five deep breaths. Feel your stomach area push out a little when you breathe in and feel it go back when you breathe out.
Once you’ve got the idea, feel free to remove your hands or maybe just keep one hand on your stomach. What you’ll probably find is that concentrating on breathing quickly becomes a little tedious and thoughts begin to crowd in. You might want to try a slow count to five when you breathe in and again when you exhale.
Combining breathing practice with a little muscular relaxation is a good thing too. If you feel like moving your breathing a step further, sit or lay down in a relaxed posture and settle your breathing into a nice, regular deep pattern.
As you continue to breathe, think about your legs. Each time you breathe out, feel a little tension leaving your leg and buttock muscles. Continue breathing and thinking about your legs until your legs feel completely relaxed. If you feel any muscular twitches this is quite normal and simply means your muscles are relaxing.
Follow exactly the same sequence with your arms, back, stomach, neck and head, before embracing a complete bodily sensation of relaxation. You can maintain this for as long as you wish but most people find anything between 10-20 minutes about right for a daily session. Some people then indulge in a longer session perhaps once a week, or after a particularly stressful period.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.