When we are anxious it is usually because we’re fixated on the future. What if? is the mantra. We fret and worry about all the things that could happen. We plot and plan ways to avoid catastrophe. But most of what we worry about never happens. Or, we are powerless to do anything about it. And so, we spend time and a great deal of emotional energy fruitlessly agonizing.
This behavior comes naturally to we humans. It is our evolutionary inheritance. Only our ancestors who were able to imagine the future and take precautions against hunger, predators and the elements were able to pass on their genes.
So, we are stuck with brains that become anxious very easily. Then, when we cultivate this state of mind, even stronger connections are made in the brain that reinforce anxiety and make it our go-to when we feel stressed or afraid. But, because there are no sabertooth tigers running around our neighborhoods and most of us have plenty to eat and a warm place to sleep, this adaptation doesn’t work so well for us in the modern age. Instead, it causes much suffering.
The good news is there are ways to reprogram the brain and create a greater sense of peace and well-being in our day-to-day lives. One of the most effective strategies is to use our breath to bring ourselves into the present moment and to reset the nervous system.
When we focus on our breath we are more able to be calm and mindful. We can leave behind the “what ifs?” and enjoy what is. Here are three of my favorite techniques:
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing: This is an ancient yoga technique that just about anyone can do. It is extremely calming and is said to balance the brain. Click here for a full description and how-to video.
2. Box Breathing: Begin by breathing out to the count of 4. Then hold the breath for the count of 4. Breathe in for the count of 4. Repeat. Continue until you feel centered and calm. The count can be customized. Some people prefer longer breaths, such as 7, 7, 7 or 5, 5, 5. There is an excellent free app for smart phones that walks you through box breathing and helps you set a breath length that works best for you. It is called Virtual Hope Box. It also contains many other helpful tools for coping with high emotion.
3. Calming Breath: This technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, has been touted as a cure for insomnia. Breathe in through your mouth for the count of 4. Hold your breath for 7. Breathe out for 8. Repeat 3 times.
These specific techniques are time tested. They work. However, it can also be effective to simply bring your attention to your natural breath. Here’s how:
Notice the sensation of the air coming in your body. You may feel a coolness at the nostrils as the air comes in and warmth as you breathe out. You may notice your chest rising and falling. If you are taking a deep breath, you may feel your abdomen expand. Just bringing your awareness to these sensations can be calming and is the basis for many forms of meditation. If your mind wanders while you are doing this exercise, just notice that you have stopped watching your breath, and gently bring yourself back to it. Don’t judge yourself. Just observe. Just enjoy being right here, right now.
Instead of a mantra of “what if?” we can create a mantra that helps us focus the mind and let go of worries and emotions. Here is one I like:
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.
Conscious breathing is my anchor.
For more advanced breath work check out the book by mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, called Breathe. You are alive!