Why should I focus on my Breathing? – Worry reduction.

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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.

                                  Or

-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.

                      Or

-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.

Exercise –

 

 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.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Meditative Breath – focusing on the expansion and contraction of your chest and stomach.

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Quick summary: I am going to explain an easy breathing exercise that will aid in the goals of stress/anxiety reduction, and mindfulness practice. Many have heard that to help facilitate a state of mindfulness (non-judgmentally existing in the present moment with an increased awareness of the moment) it is very helpful to focus on your breathing – to notice and to observe your breath as you ad a degree of intentionality to your breathing patterns. Focusing on your breath can help in the goal of not attending to the thoughts that naturally try and distract you from the moment. The exercise below is perhaps a more complicated way of breathing that requires a bit more attention to master… this added attention can be very helpful for people who have a difficult time with over-thinking while they are trying to engage in meditation or Mindfulness.

This exercise can be done with any set amount of time breathing in or out.

  • I generally feel most comfortable breathing in for 5 seconds and then out for 5 seconds… when I practice for a longer time I typically will extend to 6 or 7 seconds.
    • If 5 seconds is too long for you that is perfectly alright – choose a number that works for you.
    • Consistency is all that is important – you could also choose to breathe in for 5 seconds and out for 7 seconds.
      • Simply do whatever interval you choose with consistency.

 

The focused breathing ‘body becomes a wave’ exercise

Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position with your spine straight and your head comfortably centered – the top of your head should be on the same plain as your spine (try not to have your head tilted up, down or to the side).

Bring your attention to your breath – simply notice and observe how you are currently breathing.

Notice your body – mindfully scan your body with curiosity – you do not need to physically move to do this. Observe your body’s tactile sensations with your mind.

Now begin to add intention to your breathing – Breath in deeply through your nose for five seconds and out for five seconds (or in for 3 and out for 3… or in for 5 and out for 7 – just keep you pattern consistent)

Focus on and follow your breath – observe the sensations as the breath: passes through your nose – touches the back of your throat – travels down your chest – starts to fill your longs – encourages your chest and stomach to gently rise.

As thoughts begin to surface gently allow your attention to move back to following your breath. (Note – this gets easier with practice. Many people’s minds will seem to be like a radio with no off button for the first few weeks that they practice)

  • Allow your thoughts to be separate from your sense of self – allow them to be something that can be observed just like your breath… know choose to observe your breath instead of those thoughts

 

Be compassionate, accepting and gentle with yourself – notice if you start to judge yourself and your “am I doing this right” thoughts… this is normal, you are perfectly ok … allow the attention back to the breath.

This next part takes more intentionality and can use much of the energy that could otherwise be used for ruminating.

 

The Wave

 

Push your abdomen (stomach) out and let this activity pull the breath into your body

 

let your abdomen sink down again as the breath leaves your body ( focus on the sensation and continue to breath in and out with your consistent breathing pattern – 5 seconds in 5 seconds out etc)

Continue this first part until your feel comfortable and natural with this full belly breathing. (Breathing while expanding and contracting your belly alone can have a very positive impact on reducing anxiety).

Breathe in and when your belly is fully expanded keep breathing in until your upper chest is fully expanded.

  • Allow for your belly to be fully expanded before your begin to allow the breath to expand your chest (note – this can be very difficult – the difficulty can greatly help in reducing those thoughts that “won’t stop”)

 

Breathe out and contract your upper chest first and as the chest empties – then allow the belly to contract.

  • Try and allow your chest to settle before you allow your belly to recede.

 

This is like a Wave – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down

Focus your attention on the breath as it facilitates this rhythmic wave through your body.

  • I enjoy really engaging in the wave and allowing my body to relax as the breath gently creates a nurturing and relaxing wave up and down my body.

 

Continue for as long as you wish (15 minutes is a good place to start – you might notice that when you first begin your mind barely shuts off for the first 10 minutes).

Another image that I use is imagining by body to be as the ocean when the water meets the sand…. the water gently pushes forward onto the sand as I inhale and gently recedes from the coast as I exhale. This peaceful image gives me something other than my thoughts to focus on.

 

 

Why is it important to add mindfulness or breathe work into my life?

  • Happiness, relaxation and satisfaction are available in the moment – often our physiology or our cognitions will direct us towards an emotional disposition that feels less comfortable.
    • Example – If your heart is beating very fast and you are taking short choppy breaths you will likely feel emotionally and physically anxious.
    • Example – You will likely hold anxiety if you are in a perfect environmental setting with loving people who support you and yet your mind is convincing you to attend to thoughts about resentments that you hold from the past, or worries that you hold for the future.

 

Mindfulness exercises, or exercises which encourage a person to focus there attention on their breathing, greatly assist people in overcoming the tendency to ruminate on the past or the future.

  • When we are thinking about the past or the future we will often have a physiological and emotional reaction to those thoughts.
  • Often we experience a great deal of suffering for events that are not actually happening in the moment – they are happening in our minds.
  • With mindfulness we can learn to live more in the present moment and less in our minds.
  • This makes us happier and it makes us considerably more available to people and things is our present environment.

 

Breath work naturally reduces your physical anxiety, which in turn reduces your emotional anxiety. 

  • I understand that this seems hard to believe for some people, but if you address the physiological symptoms of anxiety – you directly impact anxiety in general.
  • If your body is relaxed with a steady heartbeat with controlled deep breaths – you will not “feel” anxious.
    • Practice is important – I will not deceive you into believing that you can practice breath work one time and have total control over your anxiety related physiological symptoms – though practicing just one time will help.
    • The more you practice the more effective the exercise will be at calming your thoughts and your body.

 

I would encourage you to sit down and focus all of your attention on your physiology next time you feel anxious (for this exercise do not try and alter or judge your physiology – instead simply observe).

  • Notice your heart rate – are you flexing any muscles? – are any muscles tight or knotty? – Notice your breathing patterns – are you hot or cold? – How does your stomach feel – what is your facial expression?

 

Now engage in the exercise and repeat your observation of your physiology – How do you feel?

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.