Breathing strategies to quiet anxiety or manage grief

By Karla Helbert

Breathing strategies to quiet anxiety or manage grief

We breathe all the time, right?  So, what’s the big deal?

Most of us are not breathing properly for optimum health and well-being.  We have poor posture, we sit for long periods of time, stare at screens, and move very little.  Many grieving, anxious, or traumatized people have the sensation of being unable to breathe fully. Sometimes you might unconsciously hold your breath until you find yourself gasping for air, not even realizing you weren’t breathing.

If we have been hurt, are grieving or have experienced trauma, we may feel like we want to be slumped down, curled up, protecting our hearts. This posture causes our lungs to be unable to expand fully and breathing is even more restricted than normal.

When asked to take a deep breath, most people suck in their stomachs and fill up their chests.  This is actually the opposite of deep breathing. 

This posture restricts our lungs’ ability to take in oxygen and to release carbon dioxide.  The result is an excess of CO2 in our bodies.  Not inhaling enough oxygen and failing to exhale enough CO2, can create fatigue, mental fog and decreased tissue function.  For a grieving, anxious or traumatized person, this can intensify many of the normal reactions that we go through as part of the grief experience or panic attack.  Breathing deeply and fully can be a helpful tool to decrease stress, increase clarity of thought and help to counteract fatigue.

Practicing the breathing exercises here can help

Anytime you notice that you are feeling anxious, particularly tired, or that you are holding your breath, take a moment. Right then and there—to breathe.  Stop lights make good cues to practice breathing as well. 

In addition to helping you notice your breath and serving as reminders to practice your breathing exercises, breathing at stop lights can help to counteract the stress we experience when we are confronted with the stress of the rest of the world—other drivers, traffic jams, errands that must be run—while we are in the midst of grief or anxiety.  Inside your car, you can create a space of calm and peace simply with your breath.

Additionally, noticing your breath and increasing your use of breathing exercises can also help you to become more mindful of your own thoughts and feelings, giving you a sense of control and stability in an otherwise chaotic time of life.  The more you notice how you feel–what your thought patterns are, how your body is affected by your responses to the world around you as well as your thoughts and feelings–the more in control you feel.

Breathing Exercise 1: Just Breathe

This is an exercise in simply noticing your breath.  Becoming aware and mindful of your own breath as it moves in and out of your body.

Video for: Just Breathe

Just Breathe

Written Instructions for: Just Breathe

  1. To begin, sit in any comfortable position, on the floor or on a chair, with your spine long and straight but not stiff.
  2. Find a comfortable position for your hands, either folded gently in your lap, or resting on your thighs or knees—palms up or down, whichever feels right to you.
  3. Close your eyes if that feels comfortable. If not, find a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you and let your gaze be soft. 
  4. Begin to notice the temperature of the air on your skin. Notice any sounds you may hear within or outside the room. Begin to notice your body’s weight as it is supported by the chair or the floor.  Notice the feel of the floor or the chair under your sitting bones, under your legs.  Notice the feel of the floor beneath your feet.  Expand your awareness to noticing the sensations of your entire body without feeling the need to change anything, simply notice.
  5. Now, begin to notice and follow the movement of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, as you inhale and exhale. 
  6. Inhaling, notice the temperature and the feel of the air as it flows through your nasal passages, down your throat and trachea, on its way into your lungs. 
  7. Notice the different sensations of your belly, your ribs, your chest, as they expand. 
  8. Exhaling, notice the temperature of the air, the movement of the tiny hairs of your nose, the feeling of your lungs emptying of the air as it leaves your body. 
  9. Simply notice these things and any other sensations that occur as you continue to breathe, easily and naturally, in and out.

Simply notice your breath as it moves in and out of your body without the need to change anything at all.  Just Breathe.

Breathing Exercise 2: Simple Deep Breathing

Video for: Simple Deep Breathing

Simple Deep Breathing

Written instructions for: Simple Deep Breathing

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your hands relaxed, either in your lap or resting on your thighs or knees.
  2. Relax your shoulders.  Pull them up toward your ears, then roll them back and down, creating space between your shoulders and your ears. 
  3. Breathe normally in and out for a few breaths.  Notice how your belly rises and falls easily as you breathe naturally.  Your chest should not rise a great deal as you breathe in and out.  If you like, you can place a hand on your abdomen to help notice the movement as you breathe in and out.
  4. When you are ready, breathe in. On the exhalation, breathe out slowly through your nose, counting to five.
  5. During this exhalation, pull your diaphragm inward, toward your spine, squeezing all the excess air out of your body. 
  6. When all the air is squeezed out, pause for two counts, and inhale slowly again, to the count of five, allowing your belly to expand as you breathe in.

If  you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes and continue to repeat this easy deep breath, 5-10 times.

If you find that your mind wanders during this exercise, don’t worry.  Simply bring your focus back to your breathing and begin your counts to five again. You may find it helpful to think of a happy color (such as yellow or pink) or a calming color (like blue or green) as you breathe in and a dreary color (like grey or tan) as you breathe out. 

You might choose to imagine breathing in a calming pleasant emotion such as peace or love as you inhale and breathing out stress or anxiety as you exhale. As your awareness of your breath increases, it will become easier to practice your deep breathing without focusing so much of your attention on it.

Breathing Exercise 3: Three-Part Breath

The three-part breath is a specific breathing technique used in yoga practices and can be very useful in times of stress, or whenever you need to relax.  This type of breathing triggers your parasympathetic nervous system or the “relaxation response” and allows your body and mind to more easily release stress and tension.

Practicing the three-part breath before bed can be very helpful with sleep issues—a common problem for bereaved people.

Video for: Three-Part Breath

Three-Part Breath

Written instructions for: Three-Part Breath

  1. Find your comfortable sitting position, allowing your hands to be relaxed.  (The three-part breath may also be done lying down.)  Practicing this breath while lying in bed before sleep is a good choice if you have difficulty clearing your mind and falling to sleep.
  2. To begin, inhale. 
  3. Then, with your mouth closed, exhale slowly through your nose as you did with the simple deep breathing exercises, using your abdominal muscles to pull your diaphragm inward. 
  4. Squeeze all the stale, excess air completely out of your lungs.
  5. As you prepare for your next inhalation, imagine your upper body as a large pitcher.  As you inhale, you are filling the pitcher from bottom to top. 
  6. First, fill the diaphragm and lower belly, allowing them to expand and completely fill with air.
  7. Next, continue to allow the pitcher to fill as  you notice the lower, and then the upper, parts of the ribcage expanding outward and up. 
  8. Next, fill the upper lungs, noticing the chest expanding, the collar bones and shoulders rising, as the pitcher is filled completely to the top.
  9. Pause for 2 counts.
  10. Exhale in the opposite way, allowing the pitcher to empty from top to bottom.
  11. As you slowly exhale, allow the shoulders and collar bones to slowly drop, the chest to deflate, the ribs to move inward.  Again pull your diaphragm in, using it to completely empty the air from the bottom of the lungs. 
  12. Repeat the process, re-filling the pitcher slowly from bottom to top.  Continue with the complete and full exhalations and inhalations, emptying and filling your pitcher.

The three parts are bottom, middle, top—expanding and contracting as you slowly and completely fill your body with fresh, cell-nourishing, life-giving oxygen and then slowly and completely empty it of carbon dioxide, toxins, and tension held in the body and mind.

As you increase your practice and the muscle movements become familiar, you may wish to add the counting of your breaths or your color visualizations.  Ideally, the exhalations should be about twice as long as the inhalations.  Initially, if you count to 5 as you inhale and exhale, gradually try to make your exhalations to count of 6, then 7, then 8, and so on until you feel more comfortable lengthening your exhalations.

If you feel dizzy or lightheaded while practicing the three-part breath, or any other breathing exercise, stop the practice immediately and allow your breathing to go back to normal.  Sometimes if we are not used to a great deal of oxygen, the change can cause lightheadedness or dizziness.  Know your own body and be mindful of the changes you notice.

Breathing Exercise 4: The Alternate Nostril Breath

Known by several different names, the purpose of this breath is to purify the energetic channels of the body. In yoga it is called nadi suddhi or nadi shodhana. This type of breath promotes relief of anxiety and helps to calm the mind and body. It is one of the most calming of the breathing techniques. The alternate nostril technique helps balance our energy channels and calm the mind.

Video for: Alternate Nostril Breath

Written instructions for: Alternate Nostril Breath

  1. To practice, stretch out the fingers of your right hand, fold in your index and middle fingers. You will use your extended thumb and ring finger to alternately close off and release your right and left nostrils as you practice nadi suddhi. You can just let the pinky finger hang out and relax. If you have trouble with this hand movement, don’t stress about it, use whatever hand position allows you to close one nostril at a time with one hand.
  2. To practice, exhale fully and then inhale fully through both nostrils. Close off the right nostril with your thumb, and exhale slowly through the left. Inhale through the left.
  3. Release the thumb and close the left nostril with the ring finger—you’ll do this smoothly, almost at the same time. Exhale slowly through the right.
  4. Inhale through the right nostril, close it with the thumb. Release the left and exhale.
  5. Inhale through the left, close it. Release the right and exhale.
  6. Inhale through the right, close it. Continue this pattern.

            You can use the alternate nostril breath with the three part breath for an even deeper experience. Do this only if you practiced in the three-part breath as well as alternate nostril breathing.

Karla Helbert is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), internationally certified yoga therapist, (C-IAYT), registered yoga teacher (RYT), award winning author, and a Compassionate Bereavement Care Provider certified through the MISS Foundation, the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust. and the Center for Loss & Trauma. Counseling and supporting those living with traumatic grief and bereavement is her main focus of work. Her book, Yoga for Grief and Loss is below.

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Karla Helbert

Karla is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), internationally certified yoga therapist, (C-IAYT), registered yoga teacher (RYT), award winning author, and a Compassionate Bereavement Care Provider certified through the MISS Foundation, the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust. and the Center for Loss & Trauma. Counseling and supporting those living with traumatic grief and bereavement is her main focus of work.

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