breathing

Take a Deep Breath: Five Mindful Strategies for Dealing with Anxiety

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During my first year of my master’s program, I saw how anxiety, stress, and lack of time would hit me with intense experiences of overwhelm.  I was working close to full time hours at a nanny job, attending class 4 nights a week, and serving in my church in my “free time.”  Any extra time I had was filled with studying and attempting to navigate my way through our massive textbooks.   With a temperament that errs on the side of anxiety and perfectionism, it was easy to talk myself into a state of stress that would make it difficult for me to function.

My school was a commuter school about 30 minutes away from where I lived, so I began listening to podcasts in my car.  (Cue the beginning of my obsession with podcasts).  One of those podcasts interviewed a life coach and therapist who gave tips on dealing with anxiety.  She taught a technique involving deep breathing, which I’d never tried before.  I decided to give it a go in the 10 minutes I sat in my car before class.  Let me tell you: it was like magic.  I felt like I could enter into the classroom in a completely different and relaxed state of mind.

Everyday anxiety is something many people experience, especially during stressful seasons in their lives.  Anxiety engages our internal fight-and-flight response, which pumps up our body with adrenaline and cortisol, a stress hormone.  By practicing deep breathing and other techniques below, you can take control over your body’s instinctual reaction.  As you slow down your breathing and your thoughts, you’re essentially reminding your body that you aren’t in danger.  This calms your fight-or-flight response.

Here are some tips on how you can respond with mindfulness when you feel yourself becoming anxious, nervous, and overwhelmed.

Daily Meditation

As the foundation of all the exercises that follow, daily meditation helps you become attuned to your body.  Spend time in a quiet room in silence for a few minutes to start.  Gradually increase to more time as you become more comfortable.  Pay attention to the way your body feels, noticing each part of your body, any emotions that arise, or any physical sensations. 

Oftentimes meditation is associated with “clearing your mind,” which can discourage you if you feel as though you can’t turn your thoughts off.   Instead, accept the likelihood that thoughts will cross your mind, and allow yourself to notice them, but not shame yourself for having them.

There are several apps that offer guided meditations, if you’re someone like me and are too easily distracted to sit quietly.  I’m a particular fan of Happify and Headspace, but there are many out there you can try and find the best fit for you.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is the practice of mentally becoming aware of each part of your body by isolating one muscle group at a time, tensing and flexing the muscles.  Pay attention to the feeling of holding tightness in your muscles as you tense them, and notice how it feels to release and relax them afterwards.

This practice can also help you fall asleep at night or re-energize yourself during the day.   In the morning or throughout your day, start by tensing and releasing your toes and work your way upward through different muscle group such as your legs, knees, stomach, chest, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, and forehead.  At night, do the opposite - start with the muscles in your forehead and work your way down through your body. 

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing was the technique that I heard Dr. Jennifer Degler speak about on that podcast all those years ago.  She introduced four-square breathing: a technique where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts.  Completing about 10 cycles of these deep breaths allows you to begin to feel the anxiety melt away.

As you’re practicing these breathing exercises, you’ll want to breathe from your diaphragm or abdomen.  In order to do that, it can be helpful to imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach, just behind your belly button.  Breathe in through your nose, trying to make that balloon expand.  As you breathe out through your mouth, imagining the balloon deflating.  Another helpful strategy involves laying on the ground or on a sofa, placing your hands on your stomach, and feeling your stomach rise and fall as you breathe.

5-4-3-2-1 Senses Grounding Exercise

This is a personal favorite of mine, especially when I’m feeling particularly triggered by thoughts or emotions.  Begin taking a few deep breaths, noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Next, take a look around you and notice 5 things that you see.  Notice the colors, textures, and other characteristics of those objects.  Next, move on to identifying 4 things you can hear, noticing the quality of the sound, whether it is loud or soft, repeating or one-time.  Continue down through this pattern by noticing 3 things you can touch/feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.  You’ll feel yourself becoming grounded in the present reality around you, and emotions will likely become less distracting and more manageable.

Breath Prayer

Often when we talk about Christian meditation practice, it is accompanied by reading or memorizing Scripture and seeking to understand truth about that passage.  While that can be helpful to engage your mind, when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, this isn’t always the quickest way to address that anxiety.  Instead, integrate some of the earlier mentions of breathing exercises and Biblical truth through breath prayer.  Breath prayer involves identifying a short phrase or sentence of truth about God or prayer to God.  Examples might be phrases such as, “Lord, have mercy,” “God, I need you,” or “Holy Spirit, come.”  You could also use short Bible verses that are meaningful to you, such as “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).  Repeat those words to yourself out loud or in your mind while you are practicing deep breathing.  Breathe in on the first part of the phrase, and release your breath on the second half of the phrase.

While these mindfulness strategies didn’t immediately fix my stress levels or perfectionism, they did provide a way for me to calm my body down and remind myself of truth.  Test out some of these strategies for yourself when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and see which ones help you to lower those levels of stress.

This article was originally posted on May 4, 2017.

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As you begin to address your worry or stress, you may find that you feel better for a short period of time, but then the anxiety floods back in.  Or maybe even the thought of making time to complete these exercises gives you more anxiety.  At Restored Hope, I’d love to hear your story of anxiety, perfectionism, or stress and help you navigate to a place of calm and peace in your life.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where my goal is to support you on your journey to healing and wholeness.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form here to schedule your first appointment today.

Self-Care Saturdays: Take a Mindful Moment

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Welcome to Self-Care Saturdays!.  In a world where we are constantly faced with demands on our time and energy, it can feel impossible to slow down enough to pay attention to our own needs and take steps to care for them.  These articles are meant to get you thinking about one small step you can take today to practice kindness and care for yourself. 

Mindfulness is a trendy topic mentioned often by psychologists these days.  Over the past few years my curiosity about mindfulness has been peaked, and I’ve tried out meditation, yoga, and other stress-relieving activities to see what all the buzz is about.

And I’ve found that the reason mindfulness is so popular is that it works.

As I’ve been growing my counseling private practice and seeking to achieve balance between my business schedule and personal commitments, I’ve realized that stress is a common factor in my daily life.  Since research has shown that mindfulness benefits healthcare professionals, I thought I’d give it a go.

I picked up a month-long yoga practice this past month on Yoga with Adriene, and I truly believe it has changed my life.  Doing yoga daily creates space for me to intentionally slow down, practice breathing deeply, and grow in conscious awareness of my body and how I hold myself throughout my day.  My goal for the month was to feel better, and I certainly did.

What is mindfulness?  How does it benefit me?

If your concept of mindfulness includes the image of a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged and letting out a few “om”s, you’re likely not alone.  Mindfulness, however, is a much broader reaching practice than just these examples.  Mindfulness is defined as a state of conscious awareness in the present moment without judgment.  You can practice mindfulness while you’re walking down the street, driving in your car, or playing with your children.

A multitude of studies completed in recent years show all the health benefits of mindfulness.  It reduces stress and improves mood, likely due to slowing down the fight-or-flight stress response.  Mindfulness increases focus and attention, which then links to an improvement in job performance.  It leads to a reduction in symptoms of chronic pain and has shown positive benefits with cancer patients’ recovery.  For recovering addicts, doing mindful practices actually encourage change in the brain structures that have been formed through addiction.  It also offers benefits to those who suffer from depression or overly intense emotions.

What about the benefits of yoga?

Yoga is one major way to target those benefits of mindfulness, but it also carries its own positive effects.  Yoga can be a form of exercise to increase your flexibility, muscle strength, and tone.  It can provide cross training for running or other cardio exercise.  It also can help you to become a more mindful eater as you grow in awareness of your body and how it feels.

Psychologically, yoga targets stress and provides relief through relaxation, reducing anxiety, and improving your mood.  Yoga can help you to build a positive sense of self, which is often threatened by the shame or negative self-talk characteristic of depression.  If you are a survivor of trauma and struggle with dissociation, yoga can help you become more in touch with your body and help you to ground into the present moment.

One of the most beneficial concepts for me in my yoga practice was the beginner’s mind.  As a former dancer, I believed that in order to prove my flexibility and be the “best” at yoga, I had to do all the intense pretzel-like postures the instructor was doing.  As a recovering perfectionist, I still felt pressure to do every move “perfectly.”  Luckily, the instructor encouraged me to listen to my body and not push myself beyond my limits.  Being able to slow down on the mat and give myself permission to be imperfect allowed me to approach other areas of my life with the same calm and willingness to learn.

One potential roadblock for Christians who are hoping to try yoga is the potential struggle with its Buddhist roots.  As a Christian myself, I wrestle with this concept too.  I’ve chosen to use poses that involve a prayer posture or my intention for my practice as a way to connect with the Lord in prayer and surrender, seeking to set my mind on Him.  In yoga classes, you may come across language that feels uncomfortable or doesn’t fit with your Christian beliefs, and that’s fine! If it’s too difficult for you, you can try a different instructor or seek out Christian yoga classes.

How can I practice mindfulness in my life? 

Try a breathing exercise.

Taking a few moments to enjoy some deep breaths helps to slow down your nervous system and decrease anxiety.  Practicing breathing can be a task that takes as short as 10 minutes or less – it doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of your day.  It can be helpful to use a guided meditation in which to do this.  I really like the Headspace app, which gives you fun animations to help you start and 10-minute meditations to walk through.  For my Christian friends, I’d also recommend Everyday Prayer, a short podcast series with meditative prayers to increase a sense of mindfulness.

Test out mindful eating.

As you eat your next meal, pay attention to the flavors and textures of the foods you are eating.  Notice the smell of the spices in the food.  Pay attention to how your stomach feels, if you notice yourself feeling full or stuffed as a signal to stop.

Go for a mindful walk.

Take a walk outside.  Pay attention to the feel of your feet pressing against the ground, the temperature of the air, and the feeling of wind on your skin.  Look around at the sights around you, whether they involve nature, other people, or buildings.  Smell the fresh air outside.

Yoga.

As talked about before, I’ve become a big proponent of yoga after I’ve seen how I’ve felt as a result of doing it daily.  I love Yoga with Adriene.  She offers hundreds of free yoga videos on her YouTube channel, and if you subscribe to her newsletter you receive a monthly calendar with a practice she’s chosen for each day of the month.  Check out YouTube for other free yoga channels, or join a class in your area.

Practice consistently.

As you likely know if you’ve tried and failed to start a new exercise regimen, you don’t begin to see the benefit to your fitness levels until you’ve made the practice a habit.  Practicing mindfulness daily is an important step to experience its health benefits.  You can choose a time and place that works best for you – I like doing my yoga first thing in the morning (and I go to sleep in my yoga clothes so I’m ready to go when I wake up!)  It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment either: even just taking 10 minutes a day can show a marked difference.

How will you practice mindfulness this week?

 

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Do you feel like you’re constantly juggling a million tasks and struggling to find space to breathe?  Do you love the idea of taking a yoga class, but just can’t figure out how to fit it into your busy schedule?  Are you burned out and tired with the loads of stress you’re carrying?  My hope is to offer you a fresh breath of air through counseling.  At Restored Hope, I offer therapy sessions focusing on self-care and creating space in your schedule and your life for rest.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to chat more about how I can help.

Take a Deep Breath: 5 Mindful Strategies for Managing Day-to-Day Anxiety

During my first year of my master’s program, I saw how anxiety, stress, and lack of time would hit me with intense experiences of overwhelm.  I was working close to full time hours at a nanny job, attending class 4 nights a week, and serving in my church in my “free time.”  Any extra time I had was filled with studying and attempting to navigate my way through our massive textbooks.   With a temperament that errs on the side of anxiety and perfectionism, it was easy to talk myself into a state of stress that would make it difficult for me to function.

My school was a commuter school about 30 minutes away from where I lived, so I began listening to podcasts in my car.  (Cue the beginning of my obsession with podcasts).  One of those podcasts interviewed a life coach and therapist who gave tips on dealing with anxiety.  One of those techniques involved deep breathing, which I’d never tried before.  I decided to give it a go in the 10 minutes I sat in my car before class.  Let me tell you: it was like magic.  I felt like I could enter into the classroom in a completely different and relaxed state of mind.

Everyday anxiety is something many people experience, especially during stressful seasons in their lives.  Anxiety engages our internal fight-and-flight response, which pumps up our body with adrenaline and cortisol, a stress hormone.  By practicing deep breathing and other techniques below, you can take control over your body’s instinctual reaction.  As you slow down your breathing and your thoughts, you’re essentially reminding your body that you aren’t in danger.  This calms your fight-or-flight response.

Here are some tips on how you can respond with mindfulness when you feel yourself becoming anxious, nervous, and overwhelmed.

Daily Meditation

As the foundation of all the exercises that follow, daily meditation helps you begin to become attuned to your body.  Spend some time in a quiet room in silence for a few minutes to start.  You can gradually increase to more time as you become more comfortable.  Pay attention to the way your body feels, noticing each part of your body, any emotions that arise, or any physical sensations. 

Oftentimes meditation is associated with “clearing your mind,” which can discourage you if you feel as though you can’t turn your thoughts off.   Instead, accept the likelihood that thoughts will cross your mind, and allow yourself to notice them, but not shame yourself for having them.

There are several apps that offer guided meditations, if you’re someone like me and are too easily distracted to sit quietly.  I’m a particular fan of Happify and Headspace, but there are many out there you can try and find the best fit for you.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This is the fancy therapist term for the practice of mentally becoming aware of each part of your body by isolating one muscle group at a time, tensing and flexing the muscles.  Pay attention to the feeling of holding tightness in your muscles as you tense them, and notice how it feels to release and relax them afterwards.

This practice can also help you fall asleep at night or re-energize yourself during the day.   In the morning or throughout your day, start by tensing and releasing your toes and work your way upward through different muscle group such as your legs, knees, stomach, chest, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, and forehead.  At night, do the opposite - start with the muscles in your forehead and work your way down through your body. 

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing was the technique that I heard Dr. Jennifer Degler speak about on that podcast all those years ago.  She introduced four-square breathing: a technique where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts.  Completing about 10 cycles of these deep breaths allows you to begin to feel the anxiety melt away.

As you’re practicing these breathing exercises, you’ll want to breathe from your diaphragm or abdomen.  In order to do that, it can be helpful to imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach, just behind your belly button.  Breathe in through your nose, trying to make that balloon expand.  As you breathe out through your mouth, imagining the balloon deflating.  Another helpful strategy involves laying on the ground or on a sofa, placing your hands on your stomach, and feeling your stomach rise and fall as you breathe.

5-4-3-2-1 Senses Grounding Exercise

This is a personal favorite of mine, especially when I’m feeling particularly triggered by thoughts or emotions.  Begin taking a few deep breaths, noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Next, take a look around you and notice 5 things that you see.  Notice the colors, textures, and other characteristics of those objects.  Next, move on to identifying 4 things you can hear, noticing the quality of the sound, whether it is loud or soft, repeating or one-time.  Continue down through this pattern by noticing 3 things you can touch/feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.  You’ll feel yourself becoming grounded in the present reality around you, and emotions will likely become less distracting and more manageable.

Breath Prayer

Often when we talk about Christian meditation practice, it is accompanied by reading or memorizing Scripture and seeking to understand truth about that passage.  While that can be a helpful practice, when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, this isn’t always the quickest way to address that anxiety.  Instead, integrate some of the earlier mentions of breathing exercises and Biblical truth through breath prayer.  Breath prayer involves identifying a short phrase or sentence of truth about God or prayer to God.  Examples might be phrases such as, “Lord, have mercy,” “God, I need you,” or “Holy Spirit, come.”  You could also use short Bible verses that are meaningful to you, such as “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).  Repeat those words to yourself out loud or in your mind while you are practicing deep breathing.  Breathe in on the first part of the phrase, and release your breath on the second half of the phrase.

While these mindfulness strategies didn’t immediately fix my stress levels or perfectionism, they did provide a way for me to calm my body down and remind myself of truth.  Test out some of these strategies for yourself when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and see which ones help you to lower those levels of stress.

As you begin to address your worry or stress, you may find that you feel better for a short period of time, but then the anxiety floods back in.  Or maybe even the thought of making time to complete these exercises gives you more anxiety.  At Restored Hope, I’d love to hear your story of anxiety, perfectionism, or stress and help you navigate to a place of calm and peace in your life.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where I’d love to support you on your journey to healing and wholeness.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form here to hear how I can help.