Controlled Breathing and Relaxation

Thinking-About-Breathing

I have been asked to say more relaxation through CONTROLLED BREATHING EXPERIMENTS

In my opinion, breathing experiments, used on a daily basis,  can help re-establish a healthy living pattern. Here are a several 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’d recommend keeping it simple unless you want to experiment a lot. In that situation, you may like to join a yoga or martial arts programme. I’d like to think that most meditation classes would be a help.

To get you started, I have included an extract from my podcast on The Nudge theme.

I’ve a number of safe experiments to offer. Please bear in mind:

  • these are my suggestions: can they be adapted to your day-to-day situation?
  • very few safe experiments will work with high emotions, say, anxiety or a panic attack – right in the middle of something.

These small safe experiments establish a new habit and can only help us learn after we’ve found the few milli-seconds needed to react differently – once there is a new habit in place.

As some folk will know, I start with the simplest 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.

Recording the Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD) can be helpful; in relation to feelings and sensations it is possible to label the intensity of the experience on a scale between 1- 10. That ‘measure’ is entirely subjective and will not be challenged by me. you do not need to justify it or give evidence for it.

However, it may help us to notice when those experiences become more intense, less intense and, maybe, stay the same.

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 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.

I have placed emphasis on doing random, brief and frequent safe experiments with controlled breathing; after all, it’s something you can doing pretty well anywhere.

Well,there is a longer one included in my own series of podcasts.

Select the item labelled ‘A safe experiment with letting go’

Return to:

Welcome

What is a nudge

Body responses

Managing high emotions

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