Quick summary –Normally breathing is something which is done automatically – you don’t think about breathing it just happens. When you intentionally focus on your breathing you give your mind something to do and this limits your minds ability to worry, which is often the source of your distress. Breathing is happening in the present moment (as opposed to the future or the past) – when breathing is done intentionally our minds must focus on the present moment (and generally speaking there is often nothing to worry about that is occurring at your present location in the present moment).
People in the wellness professions will often recommend that you focus on your breathing to increase wellness and to decrease stress and anxiety. There are many reasons why this is effective and today I will focus on the cognitive effects – future blogs will cover the physiological, behavioral, emotional and spiritual effects.
Often our minds ruminate or worry about situations that either theoretically could happen, are likely to eventually happen, or already did happen… our mind does this under the assumption that if it can work though various troubling scenarios this ‘worrying’ will increase our likelihood of survival if the ‘worried about situation’ were to happen in the future.
We will also ruminate about negative occurrences that took place – we do this under the assumption that either we can create meaning from the occurrence or we believe (unconsciously) that we could learn to avoid the reoccurrence of the negative instance in the future.
Unfortunately life is not fair, life is not 100% predictable, and things happen for reasons that are not easy for our minds to accept. Our minds believe that worrying is a helpful process which increases our likelihood of both surviving and of avoiding suffering – the problem is that this doesn’t seem to be true.
For one thing, the ‘worried about instance’ might simply never occur in which case your mind created suffering (which is a normal bi-product of worrying) over something that doesn’t and will not ever exist.
There is also a strong possibility that you can worry about something that will definitely happen in the future (ex. you know that your company is bankrupt and you will lose your job)… in this example your mind causes suffering in the present for absolutely no future benefit at all.
Do you know the expression “ignorance is bliss”? – perhaps this expression is meant to suggest that people who have less active minds tend to be happier. I would encourage you to answer the following questions for your self…
How much of your suffering is caused by something that is happening in the moment?
-ex. 1) I just was bit by a rattlesnake and my leg is swelling.
-ex. 2) My best friend is telling me right now that he does not like me.
How much of your suffering is created by your minds desire to worry about the past or the future?
-ex. 1) I have two friends that have separate birthday parties in a week and I can’t go to one party without the other friend getting upset.
-ex. 2) “My boss had no right to accuse me of not doing the evaluation correctly as I did it the way he taught me to do it.”
– Ask yourself – in what way is it beneficial to you to let your mind ruminate on thoughts such as these?
Try to focus on the breath to help with these unwanted automatic thoughts… below is an exercise designed to help you. As with most things… the more you practice … the more effective the exercise will be.
sit or stand with your spine straight…follow the breath… breath in deep through your nose for 6 seconds…as the air moves in expand you abdomen, (stomach area) push the stomach out as this will pull air in… now exhale for 4 seconds… repeat this process… notice what is feel like as the air passes down the back or your throat… does it make a sound?… feel the gentle rub of your clothes on you skin as you stomach expands and contracts… your mind will try and tell you something – to get you to think about a plan, a should do, or a have to do… allow this to happen while returning your focus to the breath (if you resist your thoughts your mind will win)… if thoughts enter your mind imagine your thoughts to be leaves floating down a river or clouds expanding, traveling and disappearing…some people enjoy a mantra to further occupy the mind and to add positivity… breath in while saying the word relax to yourself without sound…. breath out while saying release… repeat… notice your heart beat… notice the movement of air as it passes your face… breath.