Controlled Breathing and Relaxation

I have been asked to say more about BREATHING EXPERIMENTS

In my opinion, breathing experiments, used on a daily basis,  can help re-establish a healthy living pattern. Here are a few exercises, for starters. Could you fit the experiments into your own daily practice, several times a day, and make them part of your ‘new normal’?

I’ve a number of safe experiments to offer. Please bear in mind few safe experiments will work with a panic attack. These safe experiments establish a new habit and help us learn to seek out the few milli-seconds we need to react differently – once there is a new habit in place.

As some folk will know, I start with the simpliest safe experiment that I call ‘thinking-about-breathing’. In this exercise I simply breathe in only through my nose and out of the nose or mouth (as is convenient to me). If you notice that your mouth is often open just a little bit, then use the nose most of the time. Keep you mouth firmly closed.

Do this controlled breathing, around the count of a slow three in, and a slow three out, several times but for less than a minute. When you have completed this safe experiment, stop and take a note of any thoughts, feels and sensations that are in your body. Make a note of them so you can come back to them, if necessary. I touch on how to record this information in the link.

People working with me often bring their ‘results’ to talk them through. There will be ‘small defeats’ –  when it is difficult to notice any change in just one minute of thinking-about-breathing. Other times, there will be ‘small victories’ as some passing experience strikes home and you can notice how a negative feeling can reduce from, say, a SUD of 8, down to a SUD of 3.

If you’ve not met the ‘SUD’ until now, please note this a ‘measure’ – a Subjective Unit of Discomfort that only you apply to yourself – to see if an experience goes up (towards a 10) or down (towards a 1 or even a 0). It is an entirely arbitrary scale that only you can know. You could have 1 – 100, if you want, but I find most folk are OK with 1 (the lowest level of a feeling or sensation) and 10 (the highest level of feeling or sensation).

Let’s move on, now, to more other safe experiments with breathing. Please be clear that complexity in an exercise is not the same as better. Simple can often be quite enough to, as I say, ‘bring home the bacon’! I offer these alternatives as some people like different kinds of challenges in their lives. All I ask is that you to stay with challenges that work for you.

1.  For just a minute or so, before going to sleep, or when you wake up, put your right hand on your upper abdomen, with the little finger directly above the navel and the fingers spread so that the thumb is almost touching the chest. Place the left hand on the upper chest.

As you breathe through your nose concentrate on the air moving down into the upper abdomen (as if you are filling your stomach with breath). Feel your right hand rising with every inhalation and falling with every exhalation. You should feel a slight motion in the lower part of your chest, but your upper chest should remain still.

Allow the breathing to be gentle and effortless. Notice how even after a short time your thoughts can start to quieten and you may feel more relaxed.

2. For just one or two minutes per practice: sit comfortably and upright. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are relaxed and both your feet are flat on the ground.

Now become aware of your natural breathing rhythm, breathing through the nose and concentrating on the inhalations and exhalations, noticing the pauses at either end of the breath, feeling the difference in quality between the in-breath and the out-breath. Do this for a minute or two.

Now, without changing the rhythm, start counting the length of your in-breath … and the length of your out-breath. Are they of equal length or is one longer than the other? Also notice which, if either, feels more comfortable. Do you have a preference for breathing in or out. Again do this for a minute or two.

Now see if you can influence the length of your out-breath. Make it longer than the in-breath. Start with making it just one count longer.. .then see whether you can make it two counts longer.

See if you can establish a rhythm where the exhalation is two counts longer than the inhalation.

Finally see if you can breathe at the back of the throat, rather than just in the nostrils. This breathing practice, where you make a gentle snoring sound, mirrors the rhythm of deep sleep.

Again see if you can make the out out breath longer than the in-breath.

3. Alternate nostril breathing (once a day for up to two minutes)

Sit comfortably and upright. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are relaxed and both your feet are flat on the ground. Alternatively lie with your back flat on the ground and your arms by your side, palms facing down.

Become aware of the natural rhythm of your breath and gently deepen the breathing. Now, imagine that you are breathing in through your left nostril and breathing out through your right – then breathe in through your right and out through your left. Finally count to five as you inhale and exhale through both nostrils. Then keep repeating the sequence.

Now add counting. As you breathe in through your left nostril count to five. And on the exhalation through your right nostril count to five. Again count to five as you inhale through your right nostril and count to five as you exhale through your left. Finally count to five as you inhale and exhale through both nostrils. Repeat the sequence.

4. One minute exercise

Sit in front of a clock or watch that you can use to time the passing of one minute. Your task is to focus your entire attention on the passing time. Notice what happens when you focus your mind on the clock or watch. You might find your mind wandering. When this happens just gently draw your attention back to watching the clock.What matters is that you teach your mind to `be’ in the present. Being in the present appears to calm the mind.

My next set of suggestions get more complex. Personally, I like the short safe experiments that fit into daily life and do not require ‘special’ time to get things done. After all, most of us have busy lives and we are not all committed to regular one-hour sessions at the gym!

5. Mindfulness foundation

Sit comfortably and upright. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders relaxed and your feet are on the ground. Become aware of how you are experiencing your body right now.

Scan your body.

Start with your toes and feet and move slowly upward through the different parts of your body.

Notice any areas you feel tension and where you feel relaxed. Notice different temperatures in different parts of your body. Notice those areas of your body which move when you breathe.

Is there any tension in your body that you don’t need to hold on to? See if you can breathe into those areas, letting go of any tension on the exhalation.

Pause.

Now become aware of any feelings that are present for you right now. Explore these feelings. Are they related to something in the past or something which you anticipate might happen. Become aware that there is nothing you have to do about these feelings right now, just observe them and let them be.

Pause.

Now become aware of the thoughts going through your mind right now. Just watch these thoughts without trying to hold on to them or push them away. Just notice these thoughts and let them be.

Pause.

Now become aware of any images which might be in your mind. Again try not to change them or hold onto them, just observe them and let them be.

Pause.

When you find your mind drifting just bring your awareness back to what you are experiencing right now, your sensations, thoughts, feelings and images.

Doing this for a few minutes at a time is enough to begin with. The more you can focus on who you are right now the more it enables you to observe your experience and to keep some perspective on your symptoms, feelings and thoughts.

This experiment can be a foundation exercise for pain management. Be aware that any experiments relating to pain control need to be taken under the supervision of a qualified and experienced health professional. Item six that follows  may be useful to help you to decide whether to consult such a professional.

EVEN MORE COMPLICATED EXPERIMENTS IN RELAXATION

There are several things you can do to receive benefit from relaxation. Choose a good time to practice when it is unlikely that you will be interrupted for 10-20 minutes.

Use a comfortable chair, recliner, or bed: A comfortable position is important while doing this exercise. Close your eyes throughout the practice.

Select a place where there are few sounds or lights to distract you.

Using more Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) experiments.

You cannot complete these experiment by reading this – you will have to practice and this may take about 20 minutes each day! After practicing PMR for about six or eight weeks you may notice that you become more composed and recover from strains and stresses more quickly. Seek some professional support if this does not happen. Obstacles to relaxation are many and varied and suitably-trained professionals should be able to help you identify them.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique was organised by Edmund Jacobson. The basic idea is to systematically tense and relax groups of muscles. During the first training session, each group of muscles (forearm, upper arm and so on) is exercised separately. Later these exercises are combined so that at the end you should be able to relax the whole body at once.

This first lesson will take about one hour (your daily training and the following two lessons will take less than half this time). In this first session you learn to tense and relax muscle groups in a given order. First you simply go through the complete sequence. Next you actually do your first training.

Sit on a chair or on whatever you can sit upright with both feet flat on the ground. Now just do the following exercises in a quick order to learn the sequence and how to do it.

  1. Right hand and forearm
    make a fist
    release
  2. Right upper arm
    bend the arm and “show off your muscles”
    release
  3. Left hand and forearm
    make a fist
    release
  4. Left upper arm
    bend the arm and tighten the muscles
    release
  5. Forehead
    raise your eyebrows
    relax your face
  6. Eyes and cheeks
    squeeze the eyes
    relax
  7. Mouth and jaw
    clench your teeth and pull the corners of the mouth back
    relax
  8. Shoulder and neck
    a little pre-training first: lock your hands behind the neck and push back the head against this resistance (the head does not alter its position) – got the idea? That’s how this should feel:
    pull up your shoulders and press your head back against their resistance (horizontally – not like when you look up)
    let your shoulders hang, relax
  9. Chest and back
    breathe in deeply and hold your breath pressing the shoulders together at the back at the same time
    let your shoulders hang, breathe normally
  10. Belly
    tighten the abdominal muscles (or draw in the belly)
    release
  11. Right hand thigh
    shovel the right foot forward against resistance (while it keeps its position)
    release
  12. Right hand calf
    lift up the right heel (be careful not to cramp)
    release
  13. Right foot
    crook the toes
    release
  14. Left hand thigh
    shovel your left food forward
    relax
  15. Left hand calf
    lift up the left heel
    release
  16. Left foot
    crook the toes
    okay: done

Repeat these exercises once in a quick succession so maybe you can do them by heart next. Preferably you should do the exercises with eyes closed. But if you print out the checklist and lay it somewhere near you, you might want to glimpse at it from time to time.

Tighten each group of muscles and hold the tension for about 5 seconds, then relax for about 30 seconds. While focusing your inner perception on the muscles just exercised you will sense that the process of relaxation progresses a little after releasing the muscles. Let it happen that way and enjoy it. Repeat each exercise once.

At the end keep your eyes closed for a short while and enjoy the rest a little longer. Breathe in deeply and move your fingers and toes playfully. Breathe in deeply again and stretch yourself. Breathe in deeply and open your eyes. Do this at the end of each session. This breathing and stretching shall make sure that your circulation is reactivated. Usually you will feel quite refreshed afterwards.

Before you now actually start, close your eyes and enjoy the rest for a minute or so. Accept any perceptions or emerging thoughts but let them pass by like leaves floating on a creek. Do not ponder or brood, try not to start daydreaming. If some important idea comes up you can come back to it later, when your exercise is finished. Okay? Now start tensing and relaxing the muscle groups in the order you just have trained.

Further Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This further experiment may take you about half an hour. First you go through the given sequence of exercises.

Sit on a chair in an upright position, both feet flat on the ground. Now just do the following exercises in a quick order to learn the sequence and how to do it.

  1. Right hand and arm
    make a fist and bend the arm (the muscles must feel real tight)
    release
  2. Left hand and arm
    like right hand and arm
    release
  3. Face
    close the eyes, lift the eyebrows, clench the teeth, and pull back the corners of the mouth (or just: grimace)
    release
  4. Shoulders and neck
    pull the shoulders up and press your head back against their resistance (do not bend the head)
    release
  5. Chest, back, and belly
    breathe in deeply and hold your breath, make a hollow back, and tighten the abdominal muscles (if you cannot do this just draw in the belly)
    release
  6. Right leg
    pull up the heel, pressing the leg forward and down at the same time
    release
  7. Left leg
    like right leg

As for the face muscles find some grimace you can easily reproduce (don’t bother to check each muscle group separately). Then repeat these exercises once in a quick succession so you can do them by heart next.

Tighten each group of muscles and hold the tension for about 5 seconds, then relax for about 30 seconds. While focusing your inner perception on the muscles just exercised you will sense that the process of relaxation progresses a little after releasing the muscles. Let it happen that way and enjoy it. Repeat each exercise once.

At the end keep your eyes closed for a short while and enjoy the rest a little longer. Breathe in deeply and move your fingers and toes playfully. Breathe in deeply again and stretch yourself. Breathe in deeply and open your eyes. Do this at the end of each session. This breathing and stretching shall make sure that your circulation is reactivated. Usually you will feel quite refreshed afterwards.

Before you now actually start, close your eyes and enjoy the rest for a minute or so. Accept any perceptions or emerging thoughts but let them pass by like leaves floating on a creek. Do not ponder or brood, try not to start daydreaming. If some important idea comes up you can come back to it later, when your exercise is finished. Okay? Now start tensing and relaxing the muscle groups in the order stated.

Relaxation: ongoing practice

Within the next week you should practice this succession of experiments each day. Find a convenient time for your training. Usually the best times are either in the morning before breakfast or in the evening before dinner or supper. Never directly after meals!

Regular practice is more important than frequency. Many people give up too early because they somehow don’t manage to find two training times each day. Others do their exercises four or five times at the weekends but never within the week. Better to practice a little less,  but regularly!

Relaxation Programme: practice and further experiments

In the next few weeks you should practice this sequence of exercises each day. Find a convenient time for your training. Usually the best times are either in the morning before breakfast or in the evening before dinner or supper. Regular practice is more important than frequency. Later you can reduce the number of training sessions to, say, three times per week.

By now you may have noticed that you can sense muscle tension and tightness much more easily than before the training. You can train this a little further by concentrating your attention, from time to time, on the muscle groups you exercised during this course. You can do this as some kind of internal checking in any situation (while phoning, while watching the TV, while waiting at the dentists …).

Just focus your attention on your hands, your arms, your neck, your chest, and so on. When you realize that a particular group of muscles is tense you simply give it the internal command “relax”. You will see that it works! You need not always tighten the muscles first to relax them. Train this inner awareness of muscular tension whenever you feel like it. Eventually you will find that you can calm down and relax very quickly and easily in many situations you found stressing before.

Relaxation for people experiencing discomfort: please note that this refers to minor discomforts; anyone with an history of pain should consult a health practitioner for a more individualised training programme. Do not over-exert yourself; remember, all experiments are about designing small changes for small victories. That said:

become fully aware of your area of discomfort and focus on it.

Be curious about it. Where exactly is it located in you body? Use a Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD ) to record how intense is it on a scale of 0-10?

How ‘large’ is it – what area of your body does it cover?

If the discomfort was a shape, what would it look like?

Has it got colour?

How hot/cold is it?

If the pain was a sound what sound would it be?

If the pain was an object what would it be?

INFORMATION: When we experience discomfort or pain our first response is to resist it or to fight it. Typically this is often not helpful. Instead, I would ask you to experiment with accepting what is so. Accept there is discomfort and give it your full attention. Observe it. This may seem daft; doesn’t paying attention to something make it worse? That is possible but, on the other hand, we are able to notice a discomfort by becoming an observer of it.

As we observe and experience, so we can become more able to consider how we will relate differently to our discomfort, rather than ignore it. If it helps, consider some ‘rules’ of managing our feelings. This may help you design further experiments:

When a crisis generates high emotion

  • Although you may feel frightened, bewildered, unreal, or unsteady, these feelings are normal bodily reactions to stress that have become somewhat exaggerated.  Having these sensations does not mean you are sick. They may be unpleasant and even frightening but they are not dangerous.
  • Nothing lasts for ever and  the strength of our emotions is hard-wired to go up and down. This ‘wiring’ may unintentionally magnify a feeling or sensation. Powerful feelings can drive that magnification.
  • Nothing worse is likely to happen to you now. Don’t try to run away. When you feel high emotion, use breathing exercises to relax, just notice,  and then let go.

AN EXPERIMENT

Deliberately generate an unpleasant memory (carefully chosen). Make yourself as comfortable as possible, e.g. lean against a post or a wall or sit for a while.  Do not drive or be prompted into hasty actions. Take your time.

Just notice the memory you have resurrected. Say ‘hello’ to any of the self-critical messages this may generate in your head – without dwelling on them.

Just notice other thoughts, feelings and sensations.

Use the body scan to notice what is really happening to your body at the moment, and what it is telling you NOW.

If necessary, with your eyes fully open, describe the outside world you are seeing and hearing. Say what you can hear and see or what is going on it.

As you wait and watch,  just notice that things change. How do they change and in what way? I am not promising that the change will be well received, but I do want you to notice it, rather than chase it away.

Remain curious and be aware of ways in which you can be in control of your body, your thoughts and your present situation.

Each time you learn something from high emotion, you are more likely to reduce the way in which it troubles or intimidated you.

Return to:

Welcome

What is a nudge

Body responses

Managing high emotions