You’re tense. Overwhelmed. You can’t think straight. You don’t know where to begin. You’re feeling irritable, frustrated – angry with yourself and the world! Tense jaw, shoulders and you’re barely breathing. You can’t focus.
Your life is out of balance. You need this to change.
I know how you feel, I’ve suffered from stress in the past myself and a tendency to anxiety is ongoing for me.
That feeling of barely keeping your head above water. Holding your breath. The headaches and sweaty palms from the stress. Feeling that you just can’t cope. Wanting to run away from everything.
There are many circumstances in our lives which contribute to feeling this way. Some we can change (switch off your phone and stop checking your emails & Facebook before bedtime!) others can feel a lot more challenging (the pressure of a job that doesn’t fulfil you; the stress of our busy over-stimulating culture; the constant work of looking after children).
How to help yourself
But in that moment when you’re feeling overwhelm is getting the better of you there is always something you CAN do.
Stress and anxiety affect our breathing – it becomes shallow and tense as the muscles around our body, including those of the respiratory system, tense up ready to run or fight or freeze.
So, it makes sense that we can use the power we have to control our breathing to turn down the volume on our body’s stress response.
When we breathe deeply a strong signal is sent back to the brain, via the vagus nerve, that everything is safe and OK. This deep breath and message of safety will in turn trigger our parasympathetic nervous system – which enables our body to relax and let go of some tension.
Conscious, steady breathing brings our nervous system back into balance – backing off from the stress response and shining a light of perspective on what’s going on.
Breathe into balance with Counted Breathing
Try this now. Practise it daily for a few minutes so it starts to become a new, positive habit.
Sit upright, let your spine support your body. Breathe out and let your shoulders and jaw soften.
Begin to watch your breath. The rise of the in-breath. The fall of the out-breath.
…And then start to silently count your breath. Count to 4 as you breathe in. Count to 4 as you breathe out.
You might like to bring in a mantra, a chosen thought, such as silently repeating “I breathe in calm, I breathe out calm” or, “I inhale peace, I exhale peace” (that’s my favourite!).
Let the speed of counting settle into what feels right for you – there’s no right or wrong here – but let the speed of counting for the inhale and exhale be the same. So you’re balancing the length of the in-breath and the out-breath.
Stage 2 of this practice is to let the out-breath gradually become longer than the in-breath.
Try breathing in for 4 and out for 6… If/when that feels comfortable lengthen the out-breath to 8.
With a longer exhalation we’re really focusing on letting go. Letting go of the physical tension. Letting go of the thoughts crowding our mental space. Letting go of the pressure we put on ourselves to be “perfect”.
Change your mantra to “I am doing the best I can.”
Sounds too good to be true?
Now I know that it might feel like breathing isn’t going to sort all your problems out, but believe me, it’s a start.
Many of my yoga class clients tell me that they’ve learned to relax and let go and feel less stressed through the conscious breathing they’ve learned in yoga.
Try this little test.
Think about something which is causing you stress – just for a few moments – and notice the effect it’s having on your breath and body.
Now, keep that thing in mind but bring in the counted breathing practice from above.
What do you notice? Is it possible to feel the same level of stress when you’re breathing deeply? The chances are the answer is “no”.
Maybe you feel a little more calm, spacious, settled. Does the focus on breathing bring a chink of light of perspective to the issue?
Keep it up. Do this practice when you’re feeling fine (or maybe just not quite as stressed as usual!) and let it become a new habit.
Train your brain and your body to lean into the support of your breath to give you space. Let your breath give you a safe harbour from the storms.
Realize that you can help yourself – you are NOT powerless. You have all you need inside you.
Focus on what you can do in THIS moment to help. Breathe…