Looking after your mental health is as important as taking care of your physical health. Regular exercise, healthy eating, good sleep routines, connecting with others and doing things you love, can all help boost our mental and physical wellbeing. However, despite doing all the right things, you can have moments when you feel anxious and overwhelmed. Let’s face it, the implications of the COVID pandemic are affecting everyone’s mood on a daily basis. Feeling unsettled at the moment is a normal, in fact, healthy reaction to what is a very abnormal and unique situation.
We all have good days and bad days and sometimes anxious feelings can get the better of us. Read on to find out what’s going on in your body when you experience stress. You’ll discover helpful breathing techniques to calm the body and help prevent you from becoming overwhelmed.
Why We Feel Overwhelmed
When you feel anxious it means, for some reason, your body’s alarm system has been triggered. Often, without noticing, racing thoughts can mean you start to breathe more quickly which can lead to very real and unpleasant physical symptoms like feeling light-headed, feeling sick, having a racing heart or feeling hot and clammy.
You can find it hard to explain exactly what’s hit your alarm button so someone telling you to “just calm down” is unhelpful. The physical sensations are extremely real and can often increase your negative thinking cycles making things worse. Your rational brain knows you need to calm down but someone needs to tell your body!
Focusing on your bodily sensations, especially your breathing, can help bring you back to a sense of calm.
Breathing Is A Language Our Bodies Understand
Our breathing is a key way in which our body communicates to our brain via a network of nerve connections called the central nervous system. And within this system the IN and the OUT breaths have very different things to say!
Breathing IN stimulates our sympathetic nervous system which tells our brain to get ready to act. To balance this, breathing OUT stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system which helps us rest, recover and process our emotions. When our alarm systems are triggered we tend to breath fast and shallow, ready for action. The consequence is that we breathe IN more than we breathe OUT creating those uncomfortable bodily sensations.
Therefore steady, even breathing, with a focus on the OUT breath, can really help to calm an overactive mind.
Find The Language That Works Best For You
Counting our breathing to calm ourselves down can be a helpful distraction so below are a number of different breathing patterns and grounding techniques. Have a play with them when you’re feeling calm to work out which suits you best.
TOP TIP: There are a number of apps that give visual cues to these breathing patterns such as the Breathe+ app which is free and simple to use.
Basic Belly Breathing Technique
The basic technique is to breathe slowly and steadily IN THROUGH YOUR NOSE all the way down to your BELLY filling it will air like you would a balloon. Then to breathe slowly and steadily OUT THROUGH YOUR MOUTH like you’re gently trying to steam up a window. The HOLDING OF THE BREATH at either end can really help to calm your nervous system.
Relaxed Breathing Pattern
= 4 / 2 / 4 / 2
= IN / HOLD / OUT / HOLD
This is the basic breathing technique:
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes if you can and notice how you feel
- BREATHE slowly and steadily IN through your NOSE down to your BELLY for a count of 4
- HOLD your breath for a count of 2
- BREATHE slowly and steadily OUT through your MOUTH slowly for a count of 4
- HOLD at the bottom of the breath for 2
- REPEAT the cycle for a few minutes S L O W I N G the counting down as you go
- Notice how you feel. If necessary repeat.
= 4 / 4 / 4 / 4
When you become more comfortable with holding your breath (it can take a bit of practice) square breathing is a very steadying breathing pattern use the image below to give your mind something to focus on.
= 4 / 2 / 6 / 2
When feeling very overwhelmed it can be extremely helpful to breathe OUT for a longer count than you breathe IN. With practice you can work to extend this technique with a helpful pattern being 7 / 2 / 11 / 2 if you really feel like going for it!
A physical action can be helpfully distracting so you can link any of the techniques above to hand breathing.
Tracing the index finger of one hand up and down the fingers of the other hand in time with the breathing count and holding the breath at the tip and dip of each finger.
Bringing Us Back To Our Senses
Another way to promote calm is to tune into any one of your five senses alongside your breathing. For example, feel your feet grounded on the floor, run your hands under warm water, give yourself a hand massage or listen to music that calms you.
You can build on this with a breathing technique you can use wherever you are.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Grounding Technique
You silently named to yourself:
5 things you can see SIGHT
4 things in the room and imagine how they feel TOUCH
3 sounds you can hear in or outside of the room SOUND
2 smells (or imagine 2 smells that make you feel calm/happy) SMELL
1 thing you can taste in your mouth (or imagine you would like to taste!) TASTE
Tell Others How You’re Feeling
Have a think about which techniques might work best for you and practice them when you’re feeling calm. Maybe first thing in the morning, or whilst you’re in the shower, or just before bed. This means they will be anchored to a relaxed state making them more effective when you need to use them when faced with anxiety.
Tell others in your life what helps to keep you calm and remember if you continue to feel overwhelmed despite all of your best efforts help is available. Contact No5 and ask for counselling sessions.
Emma Beesley BSc MBACP Accred