Friday, November 13, 2015

Just Breathe: How to Make Mindful Breathing a Habit

One of my favorite pieces of advice for someone when they are stressed or anxious is to remember to breathe. Sounds trite and boring, I know, but it really does work. And it's cheap, easy, and you can do it whenever, wherever. While I know our bodies will breathe for us if we're not paying attention (we hope!), but what I'm talking about is the mindful, focused breathing that is centering and grounding.  (If you're interested in the "why" of how breathing helps you deal with stress, this article does a great job of describing it.)

Personal story time...

Over the years, I've realized that I have some perfectionist tendencies (that sometimes border on OCD. Ugh!).  I like to have things a certain way, and if they aren't, there are times that this really gets to me.  I know, it's an issue and I'm working on it! The first step is admitting I have a problem, right? ;)

Several years ago, around this time of year, we were getting ready to have my whole family at our house for the long weekend and also hosting the Thanksgiving meal.  Our house is cozy (aka, not big), and as you can imagine, this was a highly stressful time for me.  I wanted to have everything done ahead of time, and the perfectionist in me wanted to have everything done just right. 

Before the majority of the crew came to town, my mom and I drove out to run some last minute errands. As we got on the Expressway, all of a sudden my heart started beating really fast, I was having trouble breathing, and ended up pulling over as cars were whizzing past us (remember, this is right before Thanksgiving, when everyone is already nuts!).  Thankfully, my mom is a retired nurse and was able to stay calm and assess the situation.  We decided to turn around and head over to Urgent Care.  (Also thankfully, she was able to drive a stick shift, as I was in no shape to drive!)

Long story short(er), at Urgent Care they did some tests, kept an eye on me for a while, but everything was fine (more to be thankful for!).  Turns out, I had just experienced my first panic attack.  

So what's the moral of the story?

Breathe, folks. Just breathe.

Fortunately, I have only experienced a few more panic attacks since that time, none in the past few years, and I attribute that to my regular meditation practice, as well as remembering to just breathe in the moments where I've been feeling stressed or anxious.  

Several years ago, I bought the above bracelet to remind myself of just that.  I know I preach it, "just breathe," but I also know it's not always easy to remember. I still have times when I get caught up in the moment and let myself spin up into a ball of stress.  So for the past two+ years I've worn this bracelet 24/7 to help me remember. (The source link takes you to the Esty site where I bought it, if interested.)  As with anything, the more you do it or practice it, the more of a habit it becomes.

How do you make mindful breathing a habit?

A few things you can do to help make it more of a habit:

  • Use a physical reminder, like my bracelet, that helps keep it top of mind. Doesn't have to be a bracelet, but could be a rubber band or a post-it note, whatever works for you.  Whenever you see it, take a deep breath.
  • Add a breathing exercise into your morning and evening routine.  For example, before you get in the shower in the morning, take three long, deep breaths.  The more you do it, the more you'll remember to do it when you need it.
  • Start a regular meditation practice. See this post for more info.  During meditation, you focus primarily on your breathing and how your body feels vs getting caught up in your thoughts.
  • Take a yoga class (or several!).  In yoga, while you go through different poses, the one thing that is constant is to focus on your breathing or remembering to breathe.
  • 4-7-8 breathing: During my coaching training, Dr. Andrew Weil taught us this practice.  Gently hold your tongue on the roof of your mouth.  Inhale through your nose for 4 counts, hold the breath for 7, then exhale through your mouth for 8 counts.  Repeat 4-8 times daily.
  • Envision your breath going in and out as a color, a cleansing breath. I like to see my breath as a white or yellow mist as I'm inhaling (clean, fresh air), and then as I blow it out, it's brown or gray (releasing the stress, worry or other negative emotion).   
If you practice mindful breathing when you don't need it, you'll remember more readily when you actually do!  Then as you become more aware, if you feel yourselves spinning up, getting angry or feeling frustrated or anxious, take a BIGGGG deep breath and hold it.  Hold it!  Hold it !!!  Count to 10 if needed.  Then blow it out through your mouth.   Blow that breath and stress and frustration right out.   Repeat as long as you need.

Just breathe.

Do you find that remembering to breathe helps you deal with stressful moments?  Please share in the comments. 

Have a great week! :)

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