There are situations that get your heart racing and you just can’t calm it down. You know the situations. It gets harder to breathe, to think. You might feel nauseas. It’s a horrible feeling that overtakes your body – it’s anxiety. It might even be a panic attack.
Research has proven that each of us has a built-in system for calming down. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system. Its job is to calm us down when we’re overwhelmed with anxiety. All you have to do is get it working for you and you’ll feel what Dr. Herbert Benson (Harvard Medical School, and Founder of the Benson-Henry Institute For Mind Body Medicine) calls “the relaxation response.”
You will feel your heart rate come down, your breathing relax, your thoughts stop racing within just a few minutes. Stay with it to get your body to calm down to a tolerable level.
I use it myself and have been teaching it for many years in my psychotherapy practice. Follow the steps below and find yourself calming down, right now. Most people take about 10 minutes to learn this method. You might want to print these instructions, so you can have them in hand as you follow the steps, one by one.
1) Start by lying down. Lie on the floor and rest your lower legs on a chair or couch, so that your thighs are vertical and your shins are horizontal. Let your knees open, if it’s comfortable. Your head should be level with your hips, so don’t put a pillow under it.
2) Breathe with your diaphragm. If you don’t know how to do this, here’s how to learn: put a hand just below your collar bone and the other on your belly. Imagine there’s a pipe running down your throat to your belly. At the end of the pipe there’s a balloon. When you inhale the balloon inflates, making your stomach rise. As you exhale, the balloon deflates and your stomach falls. The hand near your collar bone should sense very little movement. The hand on your belly should feel your gut rise with your in-breath and then drop with the out- breath.
Note: at first, the muscles around your belly may constrict on the inhale instead of relaxing. This is common, especially if you’re often anxious.
If your tummy won’t relax, push the stomach muscles up to the ceiling, consciously. Feel your lower back push into the floor a bit. Then let the belly drop on your inhale. Do this three times. You may notice the muscles begin to let go only to resist again on the next breath. That’s part of the learning curve. Don’t worry. Your body can do this. Return to normal breathing, and rest. Then try it again three times in a row – and return to normal breathing again.
Fact: diaphragmatic breathing is natural – it’s the way we breathed as infants. So, even if your stomach muscles are stubborn and tight at first, don’t give up. Your body knows how to do this, just give it a chance to “remember.”
Fact: The tension in your belly is making you more vulnerable to anxiety. It’s preventing you from getting the oxygen your brain needs to let you relax. So, keep trying to relax your belly on the in-breath, even if you have to take a break and come back to it later.
3) Once you’ve got it, let your inhales vary in depth and length.
4) Keep the outgoing breath a little longer than the inhale.
5) Let the rhythm of your breaths vary, so you can relax instead of working at it. In my own experience, getting the parasympathetic nervous system to engage feels a lot like floating on the ocean near the sea shore. Once you’ve got your body cooperating, you can let it take over. You become the observer, while you let your lungs pull as much air as they want for each breath and let the air come out gently, slowly and naturally. The depth and length of your breaths will vary, just like the vigor and strength of waves at the beach do.
6) Ride the “waves” of your in- and out-breaths. Notice how deep or shallow this particular breath is. Notice the length of the exhale. Keep staying with noting the in- and out- breaths. If your mind wanders, count your inhales, backwards from 12. Repeat when you get to “0.” Otherwise, you’re “doing” very little at this point – just “riding the waves” of your inhales andexhales. Your breaths will slow; they’ll vary a lot in length, depth and in how much they move your belly. Be patient. Let the technique work.
7) Scan your inner experience, body, mind and emotion.
Notice subtle changes in sensation since breathing this way. Your shoulders may’ve dropped, for instance. What else do you feel in your body?
Scan your mind. Are you thinking? If so, interrupt the thought and come back to counting backwards or to merely observing the calm that is moving into your body and mind. (Choose the method that works for you.)
What are your emotions doing now?
Notice what you notice.
Focus on the calming effect enabled in just a few minutes by taking this posture and breathing in this way.
Your body can do this. If you’re in a panic attack, stay with this method until the anxiety has mellowed to a tolerable level, 20-30 minutes. Let me know how it goes!