I’ve talked in these A to Z posts mostly about anxiety that is caused by a traumatic event. This kind of anxiety takes hold in situations that trigger subconscious memory of the original event.
But anxiety exists on a spectrum and there are people who have what is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which means they feel anxious almost all the time for at least 6 months solid. They suffer from what I call ‘Brain on Fire’. That’s just a phrase I use to refer to the fact that their mind just never stops chattering at them. They are always thinking about 12 steps ahead of where they are in the ‘now’. In addition because they have trouble being right here, right now, they almost never know how to actually relax. These people live in a state of suffering all the time. They are irritable sometimes to the point of being angry, usually have trouble sleeping, have consistent muscle tension, and in general, they worry about things to an excessive degree.
As a clinician, I would add to this list of symptoms that they almost always hold their breath. Yes, that’s right. People with generalized anxiety are breath holders and shallow, chest breathers. Go ahead and check your own breathing right now. Are your lungs expanding? Is your stomach going in and out as your diaphragm expands with the inhale? Or is your chest just going up and down? Do your shoulders go up and down with each breath? Because they shouldn’t. Breathing should be long and slow and deep, sending precious oxygen to the body and brain and sending messages that all is well. Breathing should be like drawing from a deep well of goodness.
To make the point about why this is important in anxiety, consider the message your brain is getting when you don’t get enough oxygen. Amy G. Dala really sits up and takes notice of that. She doesn’t like feeling as though there isn’t enough air to breathe. Because that’s how people die. So there it is.
One of the very first things I do with people who are anxious is work with them on their breathing. And it’s not easy. Most of the time they have been shallow, chest breathing for many years. They hold tension in their muscles like knight’s armor, protecting themselves from the world. It’s a habit that is hard to break, and yet, when they are able to slow down the breath and create space by relaxing into the breathing, their whole body experiences a feeling of relaxation that can be profound.
There are many ways to learn deep breathing. Here’s a little trick I use with clients. I will try to teach this in the second session, if not the first. It’s a simple visualization that focuses attention on the breath without focusing on the lungs and the diaphragm. Most anxious people get in their own way when they try to focus on whether they are ‘doing it right’. Many of them are real critical perfectionists. So I give them a different way to do it. In this exercise, forget about your lungs. They will do their job.
Try this simple visualization: Try breathing from between your legs. Yes, that’s right. Just imagine as you breathe in, the air comes in from a special organ between your legs (No, not THAT special organ! Pay attention!). The air travels up your body, then exits the top of your head. You can even put this special ‘organ’ between your knees or bring air in through your feet. The idea is for it to be lower than your lungs and beneath your diaphragm. Use your intuitive imagination. It’s there to help.
When you do this, watch it happening in your mind’s eye. You need to enter the world of pretend, as a child would. Make it a color to engage yourself even more. Then, once you get the hang of it, slow it down. See if you can take longer and slower breaths, always staying focused on bringing the air in from below and allowing it to go out the top of your head (and not worrying if you are ‘doing it right). You may want to add some counting into your practice, such as inhaling to the count of 4 and exhaling to the count of 8. Find a number that works for you, but make your exhale longer than your inhale.
I’m going to tell you that this takes practice, especially if you are someone with actual anxiety. Don’t expect to do it perfectly the first time, or even the first several times. It may be easier for you to lie down while practicing at first. Rest your hands on your stomach. Eventually you will begin to feel your stomach rise and fall with the breath. This is good. Keep trying. The Yogis have known this for centuries. This is ancient medicine.
My goal with clients who have anxiety, and with myself, is to make this kind of breathing the natural default method. I have people create space for breathing by checking in with themselves every time they think of it during the day. Just a quick check in to see if the breathing is still coming in from the bottom and going out through the top, correcting as needed. You don’t need to sit in lotus pose. You don’t need to change anything else about what you are doing. Just learn to remind yourself and be mindful of the breath.
The idea is that if you have generalized anxiety that is always present for you, this helps focus your attention differently and also allows the organism that is you to have access to more oxygen and a calmer state of mind. Remember: if you chronically take short, shallow breaths, you are sending the signal to your brain that you are not getting enough oxygen. Guess who gets alarmed when there isn’t enough oxygen? Amy, that’s who. It makes her think her survival is at risk.
Just joined us for the A to Z Challenge and want to read from the beginning? Here’s a link to the first post. Just click on ‘next’ to go to the next post.