As I think about all that has transpired in our world these past two years, there is one thing which I am most keenly aware.
Those able to regulate their emotional experiences are functioning better – physically & mentally.
Stress is cumulative. It builds and causes damage when not released and expressed in healthy adaptive ways. One of the ways of navigating distressing events and situations is through effective emotional regulation.
In order for us to regulate our experience, we must learn to become sensitive to our sensory experiences. We must sense our sensations and interpret what they mean.
Learning a mindful practice of completing a body-scan can help hone this skill. It teaches us to focus our attention on each individual body part or group and notice the sensations that are there. Where in the body is tension being held? Where in the body experiences restlessness or a feeling of being unsettled? Where in the body is a sense of restriction or release? What is the pace and flow of the breath? Does the breath stop or remain held?
The answers to all the above questions provide insight into our stress level and our bodily response to them.
Once we have an understanding of how stress shows up in our body, we can take action to address it at the time in which we become aware. The sooner we address it, the better.
The one thing we all have at our disposal to regulate is our breath. We don’t need to buy it. We don’t need to read a book to learn how to use it. We don’t have to wait for someone else to provide us with it.
Breath is the gift of life. There are different types of breathing, though. Some can be more powerful than others.
Last year, I trained in something called Heartmath. It is a bio-feedback technique for amplifying the positive effects of breathing and thinking to maximize our well-being. I am going to share with you a way you can do this on your own without the biofeedback technology.
Find a quiet and comfortable place to lay. I prefer to teach people to breathe laying down, as we can more effectively emphasize focus on the rise and fall of the stomach as an indicator of engaging the diaphragm. That is key to effective breathing to produce a calming effect in the body.
Once you are in a comfortable laying position, place a hand just above your belly button. Your pinky should be at the top of your belly button. This section of the body where your hand is draped, is where your diaphragm is located.
Now, practice breathing in through your nose and pulling the breath all the way down to the belly button. Watch and notice your stomach expand followed by your lungs. If your lungs expand before the belly, try again. Hold the breath for a few seconds. Now slowly and gently breath out through your mouth. Your belly should collapse on the out breath.
Practice breathing in and out while imagining the beat of a metronome. We want the in breath and the out breath to mirror the same span of time. Once you have this down, we can expand the practice using different pacing.
When I teach this to children, we usually start with 4, 4, 4 breathing. We breathe in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds, and then exhale for 4 seconds. After completing the 4,4,4, breath for several cycles, we scan the body and notice the sensations we experience. We are teaching the mind to become aware of the calming sensations.
We can then progress to 4, 7, 8 breathing. This particular pattern is rooted in yogic practices. This pattern has been found to be highly effective for regulating the nervous system and is effective for bringing the body back into homeostasis.
First we begin be exhaling our breath. Then, we inhale through our nose for 4 seconds. We hold that breath for 7 seconds, and then gently exhale through our lips for 8 seconds. Some people find it helpful to make a soft sh noise as they exhale, but it is not necessary. Again, after several cycles we can check in with the body and notice what is happening.
The next layer I like to add to the process is how we focus our thought. There are two methods. The first is to repeat the statement “I feel calm and relaxed,” silently while engaging the breath. Here we are linking mind and body. We are creating a paired association. Practicing this association can enhance our mind-body to get into the desired relaxed state faster.
The second is to identify a positive emotion (peaceful, loving, relaxed, or joyful) and imagine the sensation of that within your chest cavity. Try to feel it deeply and fully in your heart center, while engaging the breath. Then focus your attention on expanding that felt sense of the emotion so that it slowly and gradually fills the entirety of the body. All while continuing to breath in rhythm. Then if you can, imagine that sensation expanding outside the body. Cloaking you and surrounding your body with that sensation and emotion. Slowly and gradually, see if you can imagine radiating that emotion so that it fills the space in which you lie. With practice, continue to imagine expanding this emotional sensation as far as you can. Then, we come back and check in. What are we noticing in the body. What sensations? Where in the body do you feel most at ease and without tension?
After these exercises it can be helpful to paint or draw the sensations noticed within the body, too. As a visual cue and reminder. I find it helpful to engage the breath in response to different activating emotions. For example, engage the breath when you feel anxious, angered or jealous and render the experience on paper using a before the breath and after the breath drawing. Compare the effects on the different emotional states. How many minutes of focused breathing does it take to calm oneself when enraged versus slightly irritated?
Learning to harness our breath is one of the best skills we can do to manage our emotions. Like any skill, the more we practice with intention the more effective we become at implementing it effectively.
If you are a therapist looking to add experientially focused interventions like those described above into your practice, I will be offering a 3 hour Continuing Education Training called Expressive Arts Based Approaches for Anxiety Reduction with Children on March 14th, 2022 from 10AM – 1PM. We will be practicing these and several other techniques in the course. While it is tailored for children, these interventions are beneficial for all of us.
You can learn more about it, including how to register, here.
If you or someone you know is struggling and in need of mental health support, we are here to help. Several of the therapists in our practice are accepting new clients with afternoon and early evening availability. Give us a call at 239-297-7099. If we can’t help, we can refer you to a professional in our community who can.