Breath is the source of life. Ancient yogis have built much of their wisdom on how to utilize breathing not just as a spiritual practice, but also a means to enhance physical and emotional well being.
“Take a deep breath” has become a ubiquitous formula to meet many challenges: it’s a popular – and effective – go-to remedy to calm yourself down, to handle the anticipation of bad news or to get ready and take a dive. Breathing techniques are a common tool to contain pain, most frequently in child birth. But what may seem to some like new age advice to avoid more heavy duty solutions is actually based on hard science.
Deep, slow breathing has been proven to increase oxygen flow in the bloodstream, which in turn triggers the relaxation response. What is usually meant is abdominal breathing, where the inhale is focused on the abdominal area rather than the chest and shoulders.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal praised the benefits of deep breathing and its potential benefits for multiple conditions, starting with stress reduction and anxiety, and improving physical conditions like inflammation, high blood pressure, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, heart health and the entire immune system.
Most techniques focus on deep breathing versus shallow breathing. Shallow breathing is usually associated with stress – the fight or flight trigger. Howard Kent, founder of the Yoga for Health organization and author of the book Yoga Made Easy, states that, “One of the most common problems in our society is shallow breathing. The process that we call hyperventilation can be a response to many challenges: emotional, environmental, and physical. As a result of these challenges, there is a tendency to take small breaths — a sign of unease with life — using only a small upper part of the lungs.”
Taking the time to redirect the attention to the automatic and effortless dynamic of the breath is a soothing and easy way to calm yourself in a self directed manner. No experts or pharmaceutical help necessary.
Another set of breathing exercises come via the Huffington Post: The so-called “Taco breath” is good to cool down physically and mentally. You curl your tongue and inhale through your tongue like a straw. Sit with your back, neck and head aligned, feet flat on the ground, and inhale through your tongue. Then swallow the breath while you’re holding onto the breath, and then exhale through your nose, pulling your bellybutton to your spine — a long, slow, deep breath. It’s good to sooth stomach aches.
Last night was one of those nights again. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning – maybe it was 3am, maybe it was 5am, I don’t know. I felt sad and uncomfortable. Something wasn’t right. What was it this time? Sometimes I wake up at night and I worry that the Earth will stop supporting us. Other times I wake up with sad memories of my cat dying.
Last night I felt concerned about one of the clients in my care who had arrived at an impasse. Was there something I hadn’t done for her? Was she mad about an intervention I had made? Did I not live up to my responsibilities?
I started doing what I learned works best in these situations. I start to comfort that part of me that is afraid. I tell myself that everything will be all right. Like a child on my lap that is inconsolable, I tell myself that it’s ok. That there’s nothing to worry about.
It usually helps. Most of the time, I fall back asleep.
In the past I tried to push away the fears. As soon as I realized that I was anguished, I would repress the fear. No, it’s insubstantial. Nope, I don’t want to think about that. No way is this something I want to deal with right now
It backfired. Every time I dismissed my own fears, they would come back with a vengeance. I kept waking up, having the same concerns. Or I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I felt worn out, tossing from side to side, starved for warmth and attention – from myself.
Until I finally started to realize that I have to actually do what I tell my clients: walk towards the fear. Look at it. Embrace it. Rock it side to side. Don’t repress it. It will get worse.
Millions and millions of people lie awake at night, worrying about their loved ones, about their mortality, about their future. You are not alone. Whenever your mind is in the grip of fear, remember, there are so many people who feel just as alone and scared and bleak as you do right now.
We are all in the same boat. When night falls and morning is about to break, we are at our most vulnerable. We lie alone with our thoughts with no one to talk to, fragile and full of sorrow. But you are not alone. You are a part of the human family. We all are afraid at times. We worry about things that seem meaningless once the sun comes out.
Fear is a part of being alive. It’s the flip side of courage, of heroism and resolve. Without fear, we would be complacent and stagnant. Welcome your fear. It is trying to relay a message that only you can decipher.
Many people struggle with ambivalence: Is the man or woman I’m going out with the right person for me? Should I change this job that provides a good salary but doesn’t challenge me? Was my coworker out of line when she questioned me, or am I too sensitive?
Ambivalence can be paralyzing. Swaying back and forth between two or more points of view is natural, but when it goes on for too long, it inhibits our ability to make decisions. The worst case is to get stuck with no way out, and others end up calling the shots.
But ambivalence doesn’t have to be painful. So often we beat ourselves up for being unable to reach a conclusion. And once our inner critic is firmly in charge, all of our energy goes into trying to resolve the inner conflict, and things get even harder.
Slow down. There is something to be said about that in-between state, right before we hone in on a final course of action. It’s the place of free flowing exploration, when the pressure to act is suspended, and we can simply enjoy the possibilities that are available to us. It’s important to acknowledge that we have choices. We are in control of deciding which path to take.
Ambivalence can help us mature. It presents an opportunity for growth and change because it involves coming to terms with the rich complexity of experience that we are privy to. As soon as you are able to imagine the possibilities you have at your fingertips, the process becomes expansive and limitless. Rather than avoiding certain scenarios, your fantasies can carry you to a place of peace and tranquility. And it is just this tranquility that will work to your advantage when the time to make a decision comes. That’s when ambivalence feels expansive, and can be a powerful part of our emotional and intellectual process.
Ambivalence is human. President Obama reflected on this while campaigning for office. “There is a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself,” he was quoted in Newsweek. “It’s part of what makes me a good writer. It’s not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign.”
If you can embrace your ambivalence it will work with you. If you chastise yourself for it, everything contracts, and the perception that your choices are limited will prevail. The more we learn to tolerate ambivalence and just leave ourselves alone, the more naturally we will come to decide on a course of action, because it will also make it easier to accept if we end up making a decision that seems wrong. But there are no wrong decisions, because even these help us learn and grow. Especially these.
If you get stuck in your ambivalence, try to befriend it. Give it a shape and a persona. Maybe it feels like a formless blab, or a menacing ghoul. Try to look at your ambivalence as if it were a friend who has your best interest in mind. Imagine it telling you to take your time to be sure you have considered all options. Be understanding with the part of yourself that hesitates.
Of course it is hard to exclude so many seemingly good (or bad) options. Life often moves fast, faster than we want it to. Tip your hat to your ambivalence, because it is trying to spare you from disappointment. When you feel more positive about its role, express your gratitude to the imaginary persona you have created and do some self exploration.
What’s behind the hesitation?
If you find yourself ambivalent, because you don’t want to disappoint another person, you are not alone. We depend on our social connections and have to navigate their needs versus our own carefully. But if you find yourself chronically in the situation that your own needs go unanswered, you may be out of touch with your own wants and desires. If you’re paralyzed by always thinking of other people first, pause, and refocus on yourself. You have every right to prioritize your own happiness.
Fear of failure
Examine the part of you that is afraid to fail. Ambivalence is good for a while, but at some point we have to jump in and take the risk. It’s important to face the possibility that you might make the "wrong" decision. You may change your mind. You may regret it. Nobody can save you from making mistakes. But mistakes teach us the best lessons we have to learn about life. And you will always move past your mistakes. Life flows. Nothing ever stays the same. Including when we mess up.
Fear of missing out
This fear often goes back to losses earlier in life. If you at one time felt chronically excluded by others, you will try to avoid feeling left out ever again. It’s important to mourn these losses so you can move past feeling bereft in situations that may have nothing to do with your past, but end up holding you back.
Rituals have a powerful effect on our everyday lives. Some of them – for example having a peculiar way to prepare your coffee in the morning – give us a means to start the day, without having to think too much about a certain structure that provides a sense of security and stability. Others, like locking the front door, make us feel safe and give us a sense of control.
Integrating small rituals into our daily food consumption can even help us eat our vegetables. For example, if we wrap the bottom of a carrot in a piece of aluminium foil and eat it this way, it makes us feel that we paid special attention to eat this carrot and that we did something good for our body.
Something similar happens when we bury a loved one during a funeral: The physical act of spreading soil on the coffin or putting flowers on the grave adds an additional component to the prayers or expressions of grief that are purely mental.
A small physical gesture helps us integrate feelings and thoughts that might otherwise go unnoticed of even be repressed.
There is a psychological meaning to rituals, in that they can draw our attention to dynamics we may not be fully aware of. Robert A. Johnson, psychologist and Jungian analyst, sees rituals as “small, symbolic acts to set up a connection between the conscious mind and the unconscious.”
In his book “Inner Work” he uses dreams as a portal into the unconscious, and after talking about what meaning a dream might have had, he encourages us to perform a small ritual to add another layer of consciousness to the dream.
He describes the dream of a young man, who felt that his way of socializing with his friends by going out to bars, eating fast food and drinking was shallow and empty. His whole way of relating to people was represented by the metaphor of “junk food” in his dream: a way of taking in food without nourishment.
After understanding that the symbol of junk food related to the way he lived out his relationships, he created a meaningful ritual in order to end his way of having only superficial contact to others: he bought a large meal of cheeseburgers and fries and buried it in his backyard.
It was a way of honoring the language of his unconscious mind by way of dreaming. “We need to express our awe and elation and gratitude – and sometimes our terror” writes Johnson. Rituals, according to him, are a gesture of awe, of acknowledging phenomena that are beyond our control.
“If a person has no sense of reverence, no feeling that there is anyone or anything that inspires awe, it generally indicates an ego inflation that cuts the conscious personality off completely from the nourishing springs of the unconscious… This is why modern people who are deprived of meaningful ritual feel a chronic sense of emptiness.”
Rituals as a way to give our life more meaning sound like an easy way to fill the void many of us experience. Paying attention to even small but important routines is a good start.
Everybody has days when we feel low. But when the self doubt and fears take over, we need to find a way to get in touch with our core value which sustains and nurtures us on an ongoing basis. Core value is our innate goodness and worth as a human being. It cannot be taken away from us.
We can lose touch with it, when we are in the grip of anger and anxiety, but it is always there, working in the background. Some people call this inner core value the real self, other people call it the soul.
Everybody is at their core a fundamentally good human being. All of us would help a child or an animal in a vulnerable position, as long as we are safe. Each of us has values that are indisputable: for example our work ethic, our loyalty and protectiveness of those we love, our loving and compassionate side, our desire to learn and improve, or to connect to other people and beings. That doesn't just go for other humans, but for our pets and the natural world as well.
Deep inside we all care about someone or something, and that in itself makes us lovable. The love we extend comes back to us, in verbal and non-verbal ways, whether we are aware of it or not.
Seasoned psychologist Steven Stosny explains in his book "Soar Above", just how important it is for us to regularly get in touch with our core value.
The human brain is by nature designed to react negatively to sudden or unforeseen stimuli. We evolved as a species to go on alert when facing potential danger or uncertainty. As hunters and gatherers we had to be constantly on the lookout for dangerous animals that might kill in a heart beat.
Today, even though our physical safety is relatively stable, the stressors of our every day fast paced environment sets off the alarm bells in our brains, and we get anxious, distrustful or doubtful. The old defense mechanisms of fight, flight or freeze set in without prior warning, and often without us being able to take control of them.
So we need to retrain our brains. We need to signal it that there are good things in our lives, and more importantly, that we are good people. We need to refocus some of our attention toward the positive. That can be done by starting a gratitude journal, where at the end of the day you note three things you are grateful for.
Or, it can happen by drawing attention to your core value. Ask yourself, what is the most important thing about me? And ponder how this informs your actions, feelings and the course of your whole life. Examine how this trait shows up every day and helps you to improve your life.
The more you are in touch with your core value, the happier you will be .
Empaths have a wonderful gift: they have an enormous ability to empathize with and understand another person. They can sense their energy and read nonverbal clues. They often are highly intuitive, and sometimes have an uncanny capacity to tell what others might be going through.
But even such a precious gift can become a burden, when it's out of balance. It is crucial for empaths to find the right equilibrium between their own needs and those of their friends and loved ones. Most of the time, when an empath starts to understand his or her own discomfort, it means that their needs have been chronically neglected for a while, and it is important to dedicate time and energy to find out how they can feel better.
First, we must understand what triggers cause the empath to give up their own needs and dedicate too much energy elsewhere. What personalities tend to get to you? Is it the ones that seem aggressive and overbearing, or is it more about anxious and helpless people? What happens when you do more than simply support or listen to another person? Do you feel obligated to solve their problems for them? Do you energetically absorb their pain?
The first step is simply to ponder saying or signaling "No". If it's too hard to confront a person, it is ok to just evade them for a while until you feel strong enough to speak your truth. Outer boundaries can be regulated by spending less time around people that might be needy and intrusive.
The more important work happens inside.
It is important to strengthen your own sense of self. To pay more attention to what your needs and desires are, and how you might have gotten into the habit of putting them secondary. You can make a conscious choice to withdraw energy and a certain amount of support from the people that may have gotten used to you being there for them at all times.
Some of us feel selfish when we bring back the focus onto ourselves. But that is a misguided concept when it means that the energetic imbalance happens at our cost. Possible signs of that dynamic are chronic feelings of fatigue and depletion, depression, anxiety around certain people, and some forms of chronic pain like back or neck pain. We literally have learned to collapse our own self by pulling up the shoulders, or by carrying the burden on our backs for others.
Here is one way how to look at the issue by working energetically with the chakras.
Everything must be in balance. It is a paramount principle of health and harmony. Restoring balance is the first task of every empath. Once that is achieved, you are free to utilize your beautiful gift that way it suits you.
Ever wondered what it would be like to let go of anxiety, self doubt, fear and all the other hindrances of the mind? The Danish documentary “Free the Mind” is trying to give some answers to these burning questions.
The film follows a number of war veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a little boy who is afraid of riding the elevator after having gotten stuck in one for hours.
The soldiers are portrayed sitting in a meditation class, where they learn how to use their breath to get centered, and how to release frightening memories that hold them back from living a normal and fulfilling life.
“There’s a region of the brain called the insula that’s literally used for interacting between the mind and the body”, explains Richard Davidson, researcher and scientist and the University of Minnesota.
“This area is dramatically enhanced in its activation during compassion meditation and will enable practitioners who practice compassion meditation regularly to feel the emotion of others more easily.”
Davidson, who was one of the first scientists to explore how meditation is affecting emotions and consciousness, reminds us that the brain is still very much a mystery. It is not known how conscious experience is arising from our brain matter, which leaves the door open for all kinds of explanations how the mind heals itself.
In a scholarly paper about the neuroscience of consciousness, which was co-authored by Davidson, the scientists point out that the brain is in bidirectional communication with the nervous, the endocrine and immune systems of the body, i.e. if meditation has an impact on calming the brain, it may also have an effect on these other systems.
Meditation is one proven remedy against anxiety. Gradually pushing through the fear is another. It is impressively demonstrated when the film follows the development of the five year old boy who is afraid of elevators.
His kindergarten teacher gently encourages him to try and take a short ride, first by announcing that they will go there together and just look inside. When on the day of their first attempt he starts crying and gets sad, they postpone the trip to another day.
But his teacher doesn’t lose sight of the task, and brings up their plan again. They go and inspect the elevator, leaving its doors open, and walk back out.
Some days later they finally tackle the challenge, and the little boy – holding his teacher’s hand and accompanied by a couple of friends – overcomes his fear and masters the task.
Babies want to be held when they are in distress. When that’s not possible, they stick their thumb in their mouth. It’s called self-soothing.
Touch is healing. If no one is around who can provide a hug or hold your hand, be still and put your hands over your eyes. Or on your heart. Or your temples. Whatever feels right. Stay there for a little while and notice the tension go away.
Focus on your breath. Notice any small occurrences, like the cool air going into your nostrils and warmer air coming back out. Feel your belly rise and fall. Try to make a subtle whispering sound in your throat when you inhale and exhale. It will draw the attention away from your thoughts and into your body.
If you have chronic anxiety, be in nature regularly. Take a walk in the woods. Sit by a brook. Feed the ducks in the park. hug a tree. There is nothing as soothing as getting in touch with the larger world out there.
When trying to calm the mind, don’t attempt to force your thoughts out. Focus on your body. Let the thoughts arise, acknowledge them and let them go. Refocus on the breath. If thoughts arises, gently bring the attention back to the breath. Don’t judge yourself. There is nothing to achieve.
5. Environment change
An anxious mind craves stillness, not stimulation. Turn off all electronic devices. Just be in the quiet. Look out the window. Sit in a church pew for a few minutes on your way to work. Step outside for a few minutes. If you are at work, go to the bathroom and open the window. Do nothing.
Hum to yourself. Put your hand on your chest and feel the vibrations of your voice. Hum a melody or just a simple note. Hear yourself.
Focus on the sounds around you. Birds chirping. Cars going by. The fans of computers. Some people like to download calming Apps if they have panic attacks in enclosed spaces. Use nature sounds: ocean waves, soothing melodies, singing bowls. Avoid energetic music.
The fainting ladies of the old days were brought back to consciousness by strong smells. It works the other way around too. Experiment which scents calm you down: flowers, oils, fruits. Camomile and lavender have soothing qualities.
Move, but move slowly. Use your hands: knit, sew, cook, build a birdhouse. Anything that slows you down and draws attention away from the thoughts and into the body. If you have chronic anxiety, cultivate a regular practice of yoga or qi gong.
Put a cloth over your eyes, drip some essential oil on it and rest.
Do social situations make you nervous?
Social anxiety happens. It happens to millions of people, and it feels excruciating and isolating. Many of us have been in the grip of social anxiety—that panicky feeling when we would rather disappear into thin air than be around (certain) people.
Sometimes we have no choice. We can't get away, as much as we'd like to. We have to be around our boss/coworkers/family members/God knows who else.
Here are five tips how to survive a social anxiety attack:
We all know how hard it can be to reach goals: lose those five pounds, quit smoking, get an exercise routine going. Not to speak of finding a new job or giving up destructive habits like drinking or overspending. But it is possible, and with the help of a surprising technique.
It turns out that our thoughts can have a powerful effect on our brains. If we think something to be possible, it may actually happen. This is not just a tool of the new age spiritually inclined, or of those who subscribe to the Laws of Attraction. It has actually been scientifically validated.
Maybe the most compelling experiment happened at the Harvard Medical School, when neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone measured the brain activity of two test groups. One of them learned simple riffs at the piano, that they physically practiced for a week. The test group merely imagined they were practicing simple riffs at the piano. When measuring the brain activity of both groups, they found a stunning result: both test groups were found to have formed new neural pathways, regardless of whether the exercise had happened physically or in their brains.
Another study, looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting. In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone.
Harvard neuroscientist Ron Siegel added another layer to the theory, when he proposed putting a positive spin on the goals we have. He believes that simply by thinking positively about something we plan to achieve, we increase the probability that it will happen, which in turn makes us happier.
British scientist David Hamilton puts it all together: the brain seems to be unable to distinguish imagination from reality. In his book "How your mind can heal your body", he describes how some people even heal from illness simply by imagining that they'd get better. Visualizing positive outcomes can work with weight loss, lowering depression, physical illness or exercise improvement. The caveat is that one has to believe in the capabilities of one's own mind in order to take advantage of it. If it isn't given, it won't work.
"You don’t need to be a great ‘visualizer’. It’s the quality of your intent that matters most", Hamilton writes in his blog. "Some people ‘see’ clearly, others just have a vague picture. Some people see out of their own eyes, others imagine looking at themselves from outside. All of these different versions work equally well. We’re all different and we all have different ways of doing things. My experience is that your intention matters most. If your mind is pointed towards where you want to go, then you’re doing it right."
Gerti Schoen is a writer and psychotherapist. In her spare time she enjoys learning, being in nature and around animals.