In This Article
Recently, my therapist suggested I begin incorporating breathing exercises into my day whenever I felt particularly stressed or anxious. I had just finished telling her about the latest issue I was obsessing over (truthfully, I can’t even remember what it was now—but at the time, it really felt like the end of the world), and I was waiting for her to give me the cure-all to help my mind stop doing the things it was doing. Yes, I know therapy doesn’t work like that—it’s a process, it’s a journey, it’s not magic, and there’s no quick fix for emotional health. The issues caused by struggling with chronic anxiety would never be solved overnight. And sure enough, she didn’t give me a cure. Instead, she gave me homework.
"Doing something to break the pattern when you ruminate can be helpful. Have you tried mindfulness, or deep breathing exercises?" I told her no, I hadn’t. Although I do sometimes feel an excessive need to be a “good patient” for my therapist—maybe I should work on that with her?—I felt this wasn’t the time to claim I was doing something I wasn't.
She gave me some breathing exercises to try, and suggested I try them every night to start with, since she’d noticed I do most of my "ruminating" at night. I left that day thinking it was simple enough. Breathing exercises once a night to help me stay mindful of my feelings and anxiety? Easiest homework ever. So, I resolved to try it. At least once night, every day for a week, to see how I felt. If I began to spiral into an anxious turmoil, I’d incorporate another series of breathing exercises to help remain mindful. It was time to try something new for my anxiety, anyway. Below, read about my experience.
Get Into a Routine
The breathing exercise my therapist suggested I try was simple enough. “Lie down on your bed and make yourself comfortable,” she told me. “Breathe in through your nose for five counts, then hold at the top of your breath for two counts, then exhale through your mouth for five counts. Then, repeat the process, and try to let go of all your negative thoughts and feelings, expel them out of your breath.” Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly sure how to "expel" my negative thoughts out with my breath, but I figured she probably meant I should envision them leaving my mind that way—so that’s what I resolved to do. It would be my new routine, for at least a week.
Some people thrive on routines, after all. My issue with them has always been that it becomes like a chore to me, and when something is a chore I just neglect to do it—maybe this is something else I should hash out in therapy. However, for the sake of my mental health and my anxiety, I really wanted to try my best not to let the transition from simple routine to daunting chore happen. After all, all I had to do was breathe, right?
The first night, I nearly forgot. I was laying in my bed, trying to fall asleep despite my mind on overdrive perseverating over whatever my anxiety du jour was. It took taking a deep breath unconsciously to remind me of my goal—breathing exercises, every night. I quickly turned to lay on my back, squeezed my eyes shut, and slowly pulled in a breath through my nose. One, two, three, four, five…
Keep At It
Exhale the negative thoughts. One, two, three, four, five…
I opened my eyes. I didn’t feel any different. I was still in bed, still awake, still buzzing with a bit of the frantic energy that comes with an onslaught of anxiety.
I tried again. One, two, three…
Maybe it would take more than just one night to work.
Remember Why You're Doing It
The next few nights were a little better. On the second night, I got into bed and actually remembered my goal: At least once a day, definitely at night. I performed the breathing exercise, and tried to think about what negative thoughts I’d been thinking about that day so I could prepare to expel them with my breath. I repeated the exercise a few times that night, imagining all my anxieties pouring out through my mouth, and mingling with the carbon dioxide I was exhaling. (I did get to sleep pretty quickly that night, but I can’t confirm if it was because of that, or because I was just really tired.)
It wasn’t until day four that I began to spiral into anxiety during my actual day. I went to a bathroom and tried the breathing exercises—one, two, three...—and attempted to remind myself what I had been doing and thinking about just moments before I’d started obsessing over whatever it was that was making me anxious. I remembered where I was, and exhaled as deeply as I had the whole week.
The Bottom Line
I don’t think it was until that moment that I realized why breathing exercises are often suggested to people who suffer from anxiety. That exhale grounded me more than anything else I’d tried at the onset of an anxiety attack, and I felt as if for once I was allowed to look at my thoughts from an outsider’s perspective. I regarded them as feelings, acknowledged their existence, and then told myself it was okay to feel the way I was feeling. And then I imagined exhaling them out.
Mindfulness is simply the state of being aware of something; being aware of my anxiety helped me to stop from spiraling into it before I was too far gone. It allowed me to feel like I could let it go. Of course, I had to incorporate the same breathing technique when I felt similarly anxious a few hours later, but like I said before, emotional health is a journey.
At the end of the week, I did notice I was sleeping better, and that I hadn’t really obsessed over anything for a few days. That was new territory for me, honestly—as someone who is usually thinking about something that’s making me unhappy or uncomfortable, it was freeing to just not.
I didn’t end up thinking of them as a chore, or even as a routine anymore—after a week of doing the breathing exercises, they became just a tool to help me remain healthy. They weren’t a permanent fix, but then again, I think they helped me realize that a permanent fix doesn’t exist. My mind will always be this way, and I can’t change that.
Instead of fighting against it, I needed to be mindful of my thought patterns, and start to work with them. It’s the same as having a medical condition that you need to treat to avoid symptoms; anxiety and happiness can exist harmoniously together. It was just up to me to let them.