As someone who suffered from anxiety for most of my adult life, I was always on the lookout for strategies that would help me.
I felt like my life had been saved 6 years ago when I started doing ‘heart doodles’ which would later become OH MY WORD – the insanely simple daily journal to intentionally become who you want to be. With my daily intentional word, I was able to replace my disabling negative thoughts with positive ones I chose. I was in the driver’s seat of my life and my anxiety relegated to the locked trunk. I was free to become the person I wanted to be living with ease and joy.
But that’s not where the story ends.
In the last 2 years I’ve added another strategy or rather I’ve learned a new skill which has taken my daily OH MY WORD practice to an even deeper level.
I learned to breathe.
I’d tried meditation it was a no-go
Years ago, doctors and therapists has encouraged me to try meditation as a way to disable anxiety. I tried it but when I’d sit down to meditate my thoughts would ramp up making endless lists, working to solve problems that hadn’t yet happened, chewing on the past and beating myself up over what I could have done better or even trying to figure out what to make for dinner. The chatter was endless.
For someone with anxiety like myself meditation was a no-go.
My old breathing patterns
Like a lot of anxiety sufferers, I was a shallow, chest breather and a breath holder. A double whammy! The way I was breathing was sending my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive activating the fight-or-flight response and filling my body with the stress hormone cortisol. My anxiety driven breathing patterns had put me in a continuous state of fight-or-flight, filled with cortisol and always on the run from tigers, bears and my own negative thoughts.
OK so a little bit of fear is good it can keep us safe but having too much of it is unhealthy for every part of body, mind, heart and spirit.
The new breathing
I didn’t fully understand how powerful breath was until I started doing yoga and learned about the ujjayi breath. It’s also called the ocean sounding breath and when I did it, I was always left with a sense of calm and ease. I also tried alternate nostril breathing during my trip to India last summer which always felt ‘elevating’.
When we engage in deep rhythmic, coherent breathing we activate the vagus nerve, turn on our parasympathetic nervous system and pump the brakes on anxiety and stress. As our physiology returns to its natural inherent state, our minds calm and our hearts open. We’re able to move the breath down from our chest and into our belly, breathing in an intention or a thought we want and breathing out thoughts, beliefs, memories or actions that we don’t want. After breathing this way, we feel good, more equipped to handle stress and anxiety melts away.
Breathwork is an active form of meditation
I did learn to meditate after all. Breathwork is like an active form of meditation. It allowed me to consciously work my breath, bypassing the chattering (monkey) mind to enter a different state of awareness. What most people seek in meditation I was able to get by simply breathing. It allowed me to disconnect from the mind and reconnect with the body, energy and enter a different state of consciousness. This altered state enhanced my healing, clarity, peace and wholeness.
Here are some different breathing techniques to try:
The one I use
The one that I use every day is very simple. I take a long slow inhale in through my nose and exhale through my mouth out making sure the exhale is longer than the inhale. This sends the body into a more parasympathetic state, lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels and it can relieve feelings of depression. I sometimes count in 1-2-3-4- and out 1-2-3-4-5-6. I see a naturopath regularly and I was always telling her how my breathing practice was developing. She would conduct her own examination. She would stop me after one of our super animated conversations and say, “I’m going to take your blood pressure in one minute.” I would start breathing and she would test my blood pressure. She was always amazed at how low it was after just a minute of breathing.
The Ujjayi Breath
The ujjayi breath I mentioned earlier is where you breath in through your nose to a count of 4 – hold at the top for a second – exhale through the nose (from the back of the throat producing an ocean sounding breath) to a count of 4 – hold at the base. Repeat. I often do this lying down with one hand on my belly so I can feel the rise and fall and one hand on my heart.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is the breath I learned last summer while I was in India. It is a cleansing breathing technique that involves inhaling and exhaling through one nostril at a time. This opens the nadis, a channel of energy flow in Ayurveda that’s similar to the nervous system in Western medicine. Alternate nostril breathing purifies and calms, as well as strengthens the nervous system. In India it is often done during a yoga session and can be a valuable tool for deepening self awareness.
How to do:
Sitting up, begin by gently closing your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril, which should be open. Then pause and gently close your left nostril with your right finger and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat, alternating inhaling on the left and exhaling on the right for a few minutes.
Start by releasing all the air from your chest and hold your breath for 4 seconds, then breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, the hold your breath for 4 seconds, then exhale out through the nose for 4 seconds. Repeat for 5 minutes to feel the effects.
Relaxing breath from Dr Andrew Weil
The relaxing breath is good to do when you feel overwhelmed. It is also known as the 4-7-8 breath, it slows the heart rate and brings consciousness to the present moment. It also teaches the body how to take in less, release more and create space between inhales and exhales. By creating space between stimulus and response, this breath has a practical application in the stressful moments we encounter on a daily basis.
How to do:
Start by releasing all the air from your chest and inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale out of the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat the cycle up to 4 times.
Coherent breathing from Stephen Elliot
The coherent breath is good to do when you feel yourself getting worked up. While our natural tendency is to breath at a rate of 2 or 3 seconds per breath, this controlled and conscious breathing which is common practice within yogic traditions) slows our inhales and exhales down to 4 seconds, then 5 seconds and beyond. The intention of this breath is to increase heart rate variability which calms the body and can affect heart rate, digestion, concentration, vitality, sleep and stress response.
How to do:
To start, focus on the natural rhythm of your breath to obtain a baseline length of each inhale and exhale. Then for 1 minute breath in for 4 seconds an exhale for 4 seconds. Then repeat for 5 seconds, then for 6 second and if you are able gradually expand to 10 seconds. Whatever elongated breath you work up to maintain it for 5 minutes to start and work your way up over time to 20 minutes.
Breathwork is available to everyone
Breathwork is available to everyone and can be very healing and restorative for people who dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, grief, sadness, anger or insomnia. But it’s also nourishing for anyone who is looking to go deeper in their search of love, peace, gratitude, clarity, connection and insight in their life. Breathwork can also be done anywhere at any time. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Use breathwork to deepen your OH MY WORD practice. When you’re sitting at your desk, stuck in traffic, in line at the grocery store or at the bank. Breathe in your intentional word and breathe out your word. This moves your intention that much deeper into your mind and body.
The OH MY WORD JOURNAL is available here: