With everything that has been going on in our world lately (although, I know it’s really nothing new), if you are anything like me, your level of anxiety is elevated to the highest degree. The bottom line is that I am an anxious beast by nature and handling my anxiety well determines the quality of my life.
Anxiety is a big deal. It can cause us to breathe more rapidly and shallowly, which in turn can produce a variety of physical symptoms that can intensify the anxiety. If you are not aware of what’s happening and don’t take charge of it, you will be in trouble.
I use a breathing technique that helps me reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety. I thought sharing it with you could be helpful to you. This technique is simple and can be used on a regular basis. It is guaranteed to decrease your overall anxiety level and, with time and practice, it will make the anxiety less likely to arise in the first place.
This technique was passed to me by my former spiritual director, Kathryn Stelmak. She used Denise Beckfield’s “Master your Panic and Take Back your Life” as reference for this technique. I apologize for not having more specifics for you, but that is all I know.
Here we go!
We begin with the deep abdominal breathing. It is a very important part of the breathing relaxation exercise as a whole. It is quite simple:
“Remain in a sitting position, lean back and sit straight so you are not hunched over.
Lace your fingers together as if you are about to say a prayer.
Rest your hands gently over you stomach palms down. Your thumbs should fall about an inch above your navel.
Take a long, slow breath through your nose until you see your hands move outward, away from your body. This outward movement serves as your “check” that you’re really getting air all the way to the bottom of your lungs and is an important aspect of the method.
Now exhale slowly and gently through pursed lips, as though whistling, and watch your hands move back inward, toward your body.
Try this two or three times, using the “hand check” to be sure you’re really using abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing – the sort that pushes the stomach out and has the desired arousal-reducing physiological effects.
If you lie down on your back and repeat the exercise, you should see your hands rise upwards, a check to make sure you are breathing correctly.”
Once comfortable with the deep breathing, slow it down:
“As you start to inhale through the nose, mentally count in a slow, regular fashion – one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand.
Begin to exhale gently through pursed lips and again count slowly as you do so – one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand.”
Repeat several times, remember to breathe in through your nose and out through your pursed lips.
Have your hands still laced over your navel as an ongoing “location check” for deep breaths.
Continue this for four minutes.
Practice it every day, several times a day.
Once you are able to use the method smoothly, try it by watching the clock to ensure that you are counting at a slow enough rate.”
When you feel that you have mastered the method and find that it reduces your anxiety and physical symptoms, you may drop the counting. You may simply go into the slower deeper breathing. At this point, I use an imagery that helps me to relax, such as the beach. You can use any imagery that relaxes you. With the imagery framed in your mind, consciously focus on your muscles and allow them to become tension-free.
Once you become adept at achieving relaxation with controlled breathing, you can use a “cue word” to help you even more. Each time you inhale during the breathing exercise, mentally think the word “relax” or “calm.”
I have utilized this method while performing different activities. It can be used at any time during the day and I strongly recommend, specially for those of you who likewise are always anxious, to use it as frequent as possible and whenever you need it. Whenever you notice some tension in your body… do it.
Here’s specifically how I go about it:
I stop at the first hint of uneasiness and discomfort. I literally say it out loud “stop it!”
When I say the phrase “stop it” I pay attention to what I am thinking and I am able to change the focus of my thoughts. Usually I am worried about something that has not happened (and many times will never likely happen) and refocus my attention to the present moment. It helps me to pay attention to my senses —what I see, hear, smell, touch, or taste becomes of utmost importance. I also make use of my faith. Basically, I trust that I am fine in the present moment because I trust the presence of God with me. With that awareness, I start my controlled breathing exercise. This prevents my mind from going to the “what ifs” that have started attacking it. I breathe IN God’s love, peace, and healing.
In summary, here’s what you do:
Feel yourself grounded on the earth, in God’s creation.
Know that you are a loved child of God.
When breathing in, breathe in God’s love, peace, or whatever you need most in the moment.
Let this love or peace flow throughout your body to every area of it.
Exhale your anxiety, tension, or any negative thing that is harmful to you in this moment.
Continue to breathe in God’s love and peace for as long as you need.
Have trust in God’s healing power.
Do this several times a day.