When I was working with college students at a busy University, we were sponsoring a program for young people on leadership skills. During the program one young man seemed to get agitated and then started having a panic attack. His girlfriend got him outside the program area to the lobby. I met them there and took them to my office. While his girlfriend went to look for a paper bag, I had the young man breathe with me and to listen to my voice and do what I ask him to do. Just as his girlfriend came back with the paper bag, he was breathing in a regular rhythm, and his body was becoming to calm. He and his girlfriend stayed for a while and we processed what had happened.
From this insistence, I began to appreciate how deep breathing can really help calm stress. The breath is linked to both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The breath reflects when we are in high stress and when we are calm and relaxed. Our deep breathing can affect our heart rate. There is something called the vagal nerve that wraps around your internal organs that can affect heart rate and digestive functioning. The deep breathing activates the vagal nerve which then lowers the heart rate which in turns calms the body. Deep breathing is just one specific way to calm your body when stressed.
I find clients with high anxiety often report their minds are racing. These clients often report that they try the deep breathing but then the think about if they are doing it right or trying to check and see if it is working and end up getting agitated about trying the deep breathing. With these clients I ask them to think of a word or phrase for the inhale and for the exhale, i.e. I breathe in peace and I exhale stress. I ask the client to think the phrase for each inhale and exhale as they are doing it. I might also ask the client to count a 3 or 4 breath, i.e., Inhale to count for count of three, hold for a count of three and exhales to a count of three. I find some clients need to engage and slow down their mind for deep breathing to work.
Utilizing grounding exercise with deep breathing has helped some clients feels calmer before a test or before work. I ask the clients to be seated in a chair with a back. I ask the client to put their feet flat on the ground, to feel the chair with their bask and to place their hands palms down on their thighs. Then I ask the client to take four deep breaths. I ask them to pay attention to the intake and exhale of the breath. While breathing in say, “I breathe in safety and peace.” and when breathing out to say, “I breath out anxiety.”
The self-calming techniques can really help when you feel stressed out. As the song goes, “Breathe…just breathe.”
- Michelle Goodwin, LPC