We breathe all day every day, but taking a moment to breathe, purposefully, rarely happens in our fast paced schedules. We are too busy working, driving, taking care of the kids, preparing for a meeting, shopping at the market, doing homework, preparing our taxes, taking care of a loved one, grading papers, walking the dog, doing laundry, and making ends meet. Yet, our breath is one of the most effective and powerful tools that we have to combat stress and relax. It is always with us wherever we go and is invisible to the rest of the world when used as a tool for relaxation. It's like our secret weapon. Unfortunately, it is one that we allow to gather dust in our toolbox of coping strategies.
When we are anxious or stressed we may begin to breathe rapidly, drawing in quick and shallow breaths. During a panic attack this rapid breathing can lead to hyperventilation, which can increase panic symptoms and anxiety, leading to even faster and shallower breaths. Thus, a vicious cycle is created. Increasing awareness about our bodies and our breath can help us regain control of how we feel. How do the muscles in your shoulders and neck feel now? Is your jaw clenched? Checking in with our body provides an opportunity to gauge our current level of stress and to take charge and relax when we are aware that we are tense.
For those with panic attacks, paying attention to our bodies can seem frightening, particularly noticing our heart rate, body temperature, and breathing. However, learning about our bodies and our response to stress provides an opportunity to understand them better and to eventually be able to better decipher when we are panicking from when there is truly a medical issue that needs attention.
Once we are aware of our stress and anxiety building, whether from a stressful day at work or panic symptoms beginning to grow, then we can do something about it. Checking in with our bodies in the moment allows us to stop the cycle of stress leading to greater physical strain and emotional discomfort. However, please note, if you are experiencing difficulty breathing check in with a doctor to make sure that there is not an underlying physical cause.
I invite you to try an experiment with me now:
Place one hand on your upper chest and one on your lower abdomen below your belly button. Try not to change the way you have been breathing. Instead just notice which hand rises and falls more with each breath. Is it the hand on your chest or the one on your stomach? Are you taking deep abdominal breaths or shallow breaths in your chest? Deep breathing occurs when the hand on your abdomen rises and falls more than the hand on our chest, as our diaphragm expands and contracts with slow, deep breaths.
To take a deep abdominal breath imagine a balloon in your abdomen. Visualize sending air into the empty balloon as you take a slow, deep breath in. Send the breath past your chest all the way down to your stomach, filling up the balloon and causing your abdomen to expand. Then slowly let the air release as you exhale. Picture the balloon deflating as you gently breath out.
As I said before, we are constantly breathing, every second, but rarely aware of how we are breathing or purposefully using our breath to our advantage. So, let's take 5. The 5-5-5 breath can be an excellent tool to increase relaxation and decrease anxiety and stress. This is a technique I have use with many individuals as a coping skill for stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD as well as those practicing Mindfulness.
Begin by adjusting your body where you are sitting to get into a comfortable position.
First: Slowly take in a deep abdominal breath, imagining the balloon in your abdomen becoming full, as you count
from 1 to 5 slowly inhaling. Becoming aware of any tension in your body or stress.
Next: Hold your breath at the top to the count of 5, or less if five seconds is difficult, when you have taken in a full,
Finally: Slowly release the air and exhale as you count from 1 to 5. Imagine your muscles relaxing as you exhale.
You can focus on counting to 5 each time or repeat a word that you find calming such as "relax."
That's all there is to it. Five seconds in, a five second pause, and five seconds to release. Just 15 seconds to complete one full cycle of the 5-5-5 breath. You can repeat as many cycles as you need to until you feel your relaxation response increase and your stress response and anxiety decrease.
Please note: Learning this technique does not help unless it is practiced and used often. Placing colorful sticker dots around your office or home to serve as a reminder to slow down and breathe may be a good reminder to make time to relax and breathe purposefully. Find your own way to remember to relax and stick to what works for you.
Connect with me for a free, confidential phone consultation to make an appointment and begin working together to decrease your stress.
If PTSD were a fire...
If PTSD were a fire, then avoidance would be the fuel that keeps it going.
When we experience trauma the incident(s) may haunt us long after the event is over. Stressful thoughts and memories, nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings related to the trauma can seep into our lives months or even years after surviving the incident. This is called re-experiencing and it often leads to significant discomfort and distress. Even though we are objectively safe in the present the fight or flight response may kick in when faced with reminders of the traumatic event. Our first instinct is often to find relief by getting out of the anxiety provoking situation as fast as we can. Escaping a situation or thought that reminds us of the trauma, or avoiding it altogether, may bring immediate relief in the short-term, however, the trauma remains and so does the work that needs to be done.
The symptoms of PTSD: re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance of things that remind us of it, and hyperarousal, or feeling on edge, irritable, and excessively watchful of the environment, often signal that there is still work to be done. These symptoms are like the flames of a fire, if we get too close it may feel very uncomfortable. So, we may turn our backs and walk away feeling the heat diminish and our comfort increase with each step further away.
However, an untamed fire in the wild spreads. The fire does not put itself out. When symptoms and reminders of the trauma are continually avoided the wild-fire of PTSD grows. Avoidance comes in many forms, such as: drinking or using drugs to numb negative feelings, distraction and keeping busy, isolating from loved ones, staying away from crowded places or anything that is a reminder of the trauma, and not talking about what happened and the impact it has made in one's life and relationships.
But when we have the desire to come back and face the heat we can see the whole picture, which puts us in the position to do the work that needs to be done to heal. There are many excellent and effective evidenced based treatments that can help when you are ready, including exposure therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. I have worked with many people as they overcame their traumatic past, it can be done, healing can occur when you are ready.
Connect with me for a free confidential phone consultation to find out if I am the right therapist to help you heal from your past.
Dr. Baker is a Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice in Orange County. She specializes in: anxiety and panic, relationship issues, trauma, PTSD, depression, parenting and child behavior issues, Veterans, and more. Click here to learn more about Dr. Baker and her specialties or connect with her today.
Disclaimer: Please note, the information offered on this website is not, nor is it intended to be, therapy or psychological advice, nor does it constitute a client/therapist relationship. You should consult a psychologist or medical professional for individual advice regarding your health and well-being.
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