We hear that a lot – “Just breathe “ and even if someone is saying it to you to get off their back, or because you’re freaking out – it’s actually really sound advice.
I offer a simple breathing strategy to my clients and it’s one of the first things (maybe the first) that I teach.
I’ll describe the physical steps and then explain why it’s so vitally important in retraining your brain (and just what else to do so that you can soothe yourself).
6, 4, 7: First of all, the process begins with you simply practicing – you breathe in through your nose for the count of six, focusing on the counting and also noticing and feeling into the air flowing in through your nose, down your throat into your chest and expanding your abdomen.
You hold the air for four (counting the numbers, focusing on the feeling) and then slowly let go of the air for seven, also focusing on counting and the feeling of the air being released out your nose.
It’s important the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. I like to say, “six before seven” to help people remember.
Repeat this cycle for at least 90 seconds. That’s about five to six times – but I suggest setting a timer so you don’t have to keep track of that part. Do this 5 times/day. Yes, you heard me right – 5 times/day!
5 times a day for a few weeks makes this a habit – you need to create new neural pathways instead of the same default ones you always go down (those are obviously not working for you or you wouldn’t be reading this).
So do this when you first get up (sets the tone for the day), before you eat (engages digestion, brings you present) and when you go to bed (calms you down so you can sleep).
Now, you might ask – why? “Why do this silly exercise, I breathe enough – I have to in order to live…” and yes, of course you are breathing but most likely you’re not getting enough oxygen.
There is a reason why you do each part of this practice. Whenever you have a triggering thought or memory, you release chemicals into your body that cause reactions. These will dissipate (go away) in 1.5 minutes. That’s right – in 90 seconds those chemicals go away if you don’t think of a new triggering thought or memory.
So when you focus on the counting you are cognitively (thought processes) engaged and when you focus on the feeling, you are somatically (body sensations) engaged – and the chemicals have a chance to disappear.
Pretty empowering, huh? And there’s more!
The deep breathing into the abdomen engages the parasympathetic system – the one responsible for calming you down – releasing serotonin and also helps with digestion.
It also calms the area of your brain that gets over-stimulated when you’re feeling anxious, angry or obsessively/ruminatively thinking.
And that’s it!
I know it’s pretty easy to talk about but harder to put into practice…and the practicing part is necessary because you want to make this the new habit.
Once you’ve begun the breathing practice, you can start to use it when you notice yourself feeling anxious.
In fact, it’s best if you also begin to track the physical sensations in your body that arise as you start feeling anxious.
The more attention you pay, the easier it will get to suss out those sensations which are basically your body sending you messages – “Hey, I’m about to get really anxious!!” If you are aware and listening, you can then have choice to re-route those pathways – choose to do the breathing strategy instead.
So what are you waiting for? 6, 4, 7…