In the last section, we talked about how breathing exercises help to combat anxiety. Now we are going to talk about how you should be using them.
Breathing exercises take practice.
Many people have been in the situation where they tried deep breathing while under pressure or while experiencing anxiety and it didn't work. This is because the skill of breathing properly was not adequately trained.
I want you to think of breathing as a technique that requires practice to pull off.
Example: If you were a skateboarder or a gymnast, you wouldn't want to pull out a new trick at the Olympics or the X-Games, right? When the pressure is on and you are under the scrutiny of thousands of people, you are much more likely to choke and mess it up.
Instead, you would practice the hell out of the skill in your own safe practice environment. You would practice it into the foam pit at first where you can't be hurt. Then you would practice the real thing over and over until it becomes muscle memory and seeps into your very bones. That way when the pressure is on, you can rely on the deep internalized memory of the skill and totally stick it.
The same principle applies to breathing. Even though we all instinctively know how to breathe, if we want to use it to fight anxiety, we need to train it.
As humans we are great at forming associations. An association is when something is when two things are paired together and become grouped in your brain. For example, when you open a plastic bag and your pet comes running because they think there are treats. That's an association between the sound of plastic and the awesome experience of getting a treat.
If you only use your deep breathing when you are already in a situation that is stressful or anxiety provoking, you cab accidentally train your body to associate the process of deep breathing with the sensations of anxiety. This would cause you to feel more anxiety instead of less. Oops!
Instead, you want to practice and train your breathing during times when you are relatively unstressed and peaceful.
Think of it as low-stakes practice. Kind of like the foam pit at a gymnastics studio. This allows you to also form a positive, restful association to the skill of deep breathing.
Over time, with repetition, you can teach your body what the process of relaxation feels like. You can train yourself too flip that switch and kick the parasympathetic nervous system into action.
You can also take advantage of that association thing by using a "mantra". For our purposes, a mantra is just something that you use to associate with your deep breathing exercises.
It can be verbal, visual, or even tactile (sense of touch).
- Verbal: Pick a word like "calm" and say it under your breath or out loud while you do your breathing exercise.
- Visual: Visualize a scene or an image that relaxes or distracts you. Or you can use an app or animated GIF on your phone to breath along to.
- Tactile: Use an object that you always have with you and feel/spin/squeeze it while you practice your deep breathing.
You definitely don't need to use a mantra. It's just a way to amplify the experience a bit.
How should you practice?
There's no such thing as too much practice.
To start off with, try to practice your deep breathing exercises 3 times per week for about 10 minutes at a time.
You can also induce some symptoms of anxiety as a "dress rehearsal". This is called exposure. You are not trying to bring on a full panic attack (though that is okay too), but you are trying to get used to some of the sensations that come along with panic.
Techniques include breathing through a straw, doing jumping jacks, spinning in circles, or hyperventilating.
By practicing the process of working through the symptoms in your safe space, you can take away their power to derail you in "real life". This allows you to make anxiety your bitch. Anxiety wants you to think that it has control over you. That it comes up randomly and is unpredictable. Instead, you can show it that if you want to you can actually summon it and you can also push it to the background. You have control.