It doesn’t matter what your diagnosis is, or if you even have an official one. Mental health takes work, and more importantly, it takes skills. Every Thursday I’ll be reviewing a skill I’ve learned in my 20-ish years of off and on therapy.Why so many years of therapy? Well, that’s because there were 20-ish years of mental, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse before I finally had a breakdown and started therapy.
It hasn’t been easy. There have been years where everything was fine, and there have been years where things are anything but fine. When I’ve got all the handles attached, then I leave therapy. When the handles break, I go back to therapy because the skills I have either need brushing up, or I need new skills.
For today, I’m going to talk about deep breathing. I know; a lot of the skills sound hokey. How can taking a deep breath keep anyone from feeling anxious, fearful, or otherwise overwhelmed?
Well, first up, it won’t unless you do it correctly. I know this because I have taken a deep breath when my children shoved me into the Mountains of Madness and it didn’t help. I know it didn’t help because I promptly began screaming like some banshee who had become possessed by one of the Great Old Ones.
To use deep breathing correctly, there are a few things you need to do.
1. Relax your shoulders: As much as possible, relax your shoulders. I do this by taking in a breath and then blowing it out in a big puff. It sounds like a frustrated sigh, but it makes my shoulders let go of a LOT of stress. Relaxed shoulders make deep breathing easier to do.
2. Breathe in, and count to 4 as you do. It may not sound like a very deep breath to inhale for only a count of 4, but if you’re having to stop and do deep breathing for stress or anxiety, you will find this shorter breath helpful to start. More on why in a moment.
3. Breathe out, and count to 6. This means you exhale all the air in your lungs and get yourself ready to really take in that deep breath.
4. Breathe in, and count to 6 as you do. Pull that air as far down into your lungs as you can. It’s strange to think, but really, we don’t get air into the bottoms of our lungs all the time. It can actually lead to respiratory issues. So, do your body a solid, all the air, all the way down! If your ribs didn’t move significantly, you’re not breathing in enough.
5. Breathe out and count to 8.
6. Repeat at least three times. Check your state of mind and see if you need another round.
Why does this work?
Anxiety, stress, and all the things that are helped by deep breathing are states that trigger our body’s fight or flight response. Regardless of which response you experience personally, your body gets flooded with adrenaline and other stress hormones. Your heart rate speeds up to pump extra oxygen because it doesn’t know if you’re going to have a fight, or need to run away. (That’s also why anxiety attacks often include shaking.)
Deep breathing pulls your heart rate down, which tells the body, “Hey, false alarm, we’re not going to be doing the fight or flight thing!” At that point, the body says, “Oh, we’re relaxing instead? My bad, fam! Here, have some chill vibes!” And then the anxiety takes a step back. Often, that half a step of distance is exactly what’s needed to let a person think clearly enough to choose the next step without being driven by emotion.
At the very least, it’ll keep you from getting possessed by Great Old Ones. It’s worth a try, right?