Calming your anxious mind with conscious breathing

Calming your anxious mind with conscious breathing

By Beate Trück

September has always been a challenging month for me. The “rentrée” (back to school and work) generally asks a lot of organisation and adjustment from a more relaxed lifestyle to a busier mode. This year’s September is even more demanding due to the pandemic. I notice that my mind has a tendency to be more restless and worried than usual. It is normal to feel more anxious in these turbulent times as things are constantly changing, and the future is uncertain. But even though we have good reasons to be worried, this means our mind is in a state of constant alert, also when it is not necessary.

Our brain tends to focus on the negative

To ensure the evolution of our human race, our mind has developed a tendency to look out for threats and to overfocus on them. “Eat lunch today- don’t be lunch today” was the mantra of our ancestors in the caves. Even though nowadays for many of us our physical survival is very rarely in danger, our mind keeps reacting to worrying thoughts and feelings as if they were life-threatening.

This can be quite exhausting over time. Constant worry or fear can wear down our body, impact our sleep, darken our mood and build up tensions in the body. It’s therefore important to learn how to quieten your anxious mind and to release some unnecessary fear.

If we can act from a stable platform, we are less stressed and able to maintain a basic sense of wellbeing amid changing circumstances.

Calming and grounding techniques can help you shift to a stable platform

Therefore, in the past weeks I have started to include more calming and grounding practices in my day. Below are some techniques that help me to calm down when I feel unsettled and worried.

Feeling calm can be achieved through activating the parasympathetic nervous system. But how do we do this?

Focus on your breath

There are various breathing techniques to quieten the mind. For me, the following ones are the most effective:

1. Always start with grounding

Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position. Feeling the contact of your feet with the ground and of your buttock with the seat. I find it important to start with grounding and to deliberately bring your attention to the bottom of your body and to the contact points with the chair or mat. Shifting your attention to your body and becoming aware of the bodily sensations can already have a calming effect by itself.

2. Feeling the breath in the body (3 minutes)

Focusing on your breath wherever you feel it most. This can be in your stomach, your chest, nostrils, or throat. Ideally not changing the spot, but focusing on only one for the duration of the exercise.

Feel how this part of your body moves with the breath. It can help to place a hand on the belly and feel the up and down with the breath. Whenever you are distracted, bring your attention back to the physical sensation of the breath. Do not judge yourself when you are distracted – it’s part of the process, and perfectly normal. Just keep coming back, patiently and gently.

3. Counting your breaths (2 minutes)

You can also count breaths. In this case counting 10 breaths: in-out, 1; in-out, 2; etc. When you are at 10, starting all over again. Try to do this 5 times – so 50 breaths in total. You will get lost in thinking several times. No problem – then start all over again. You can do this for the duration of only 2 or 3 minutes or continue with a longer breathing meditation.

4. Extend the exhalation (take a few conscious breaths)

When you’re anxious or angry, you tend to take quick, shallow breaths. This sends a message to your brain, causing a negative feedback loop reinforcing your fight-or-flight response.

Extending the exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps you calm down.

You might want to start counting the breath, but this time during one in-breath you count to 4 or 5 and during one out-breath you count to 6 , 7 or 8. Doing this for a few minutes can have a powerful effect to soothe your nervous system and give your brain the signal that all is well.

You can do this as long or short as you like

If you do not have much time it can be useful to only bring your attention to the contact points of your body with the seat or ground and to do one of these breathing techniques for just one or two minutes. You can do this several times a day whenever you notice that you feel anxious or stressed. You might also want to try all of them in one longer meditation, for example with my free guided body and breath meditation. Enjoy!

Sometimes when we are very stressed, and a lot of stress hormones have been released in our body and it’s best to move to metabolise the cortisol. In that case, it can be helpful to first go out to run, take a walk or do any other sport before you start a breathing exercise.

View here a video with Beate explaining and guiding these different techniques