Mindful Breathing Tool
Originally Written By: Ronald Frederickson, PhD
When we’re activated, our fight-flight-or freeze response is in gear, we’re overcome by our distress and that’s all we can see. But, if we expand our awareness to include other aspects of our present moment experience, our perspective widens and becomes more balanced.
My new book, Loving Like You Mean It explores our early relationship programming and how we can become more emotionally present and authentic with our partners – precisely what’s needed to build loving connections. Last week, I shared the beginning of an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Stop, Drop, and Stay” with you. Let’s explore those ideas a little bit more.
Mindfulness exercises, in which we shift our focus to our here-and-now sensory experience, can help us to see beyond our distress, connect with our surroundings, and feel more grounded. By intentionally focusing on a neutral aspect of our experience (for instance, what we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.), we send a message to our amygdala that we’re safe and it’s okay to put the brakes on. We relax the charge in our nervous system and free ourselves up a bit so that we can do something different.
Last week, I shared with you a grounding tool that you can use at any time when you’re feeling anxious or distressed, or you’re having a hard time resisting the urge to respond defensively. Here’s something else you can try:
Focusing on your breath, a common practice in meditation, can also be calming. In particular, when we breathe in a slow, measured way, the vagus nerve, the main channel of the parasympathetic nervous system, gets activated and the nervous system as a whole comes into balance. For that reason, any activity in which you regulate your breathing can be a powerful resource for calming yourself.
One breathing exercise that I like and use a lot with my clients employs what’s referred to as “resistance breathing.” It involves using friction to slow the flow of air and slightly increase the pressure in our lungs which, in turn, activates the calming part of our nervous system and slows us down.
Here’s what you do:
Take a full breath through your nose and then, while pursing your lips as though you’re letting air out through a straw, slowly exhale. Feel the air push against your lips as it slowly leaves your body. Do this three or four times, breathing in through your nose, and out through the small opening in between your lips. As you do, you’ll likely focus your attention on your breathing which will help to also shift your awareness. Notice what happens while you’re breathing in this manner. You should feel the tension inside you begin to dissipate a bit. You should feel the edge softening.
Regulating our anxiety is especially important for those of us whose feelings can get the best of us. We need to be able to calm the energy around them so that we can see them more clearly. On the other hand, there are those of us who have done such a good job of avoiding our feelings that when we do try to connect with them, we start to feel uncomfortable. That’s actually a good sign as it means we’re getting closer to our emotional experience. We’re going to need to get used to feeling some degree of anxiety as part of our change process. In either case – feeling too much anxiety, or not enough – our task is to find a way to lean into our emotional experience and work our growing edge in a way that feels manageable.
What I like about both of the tools I just shared with you, in addition to their calming effects, is that they can be done anywhere. You can practice them whenever you’re feeling stressed (e.g., while you’re driving in the car, waiting on line somewhere, etc.) and have them ready for you when you get triggered. They’re also pretty inconspicuous so you can use them without feeling self-conscious about being noticed. Experiment with both of them and figure out what works best for you.
Remember, though, that the point of doing either of these exercises is not to calm ourselves so we can be on our merry way. We’ve got more work to do! We’re simply trying to loosen up our distress just enough so that we can more easily shift our attention and be with our emotional experience from a more centered place. So that we can stop and then drop.