Self-Care Strategies for Emotional Well-being

Sally Olmsted, LICSW, C-IAYT

Coordinator of The Wellness Collaborative at WCMHS

We all know that expression, “take a deep breath”. We usually hear it in response to a stressful situation and it can feel like an impossible task when your mind is like a run-away freight train barreling ahead with its own agenda. When we experience stress, our nervous system becomes activated, which can lead to a cascade of responses in the body, including increased heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, and muscle tension (to name just a few). This physiological reaction in the body can lead to emotional distress, which can, in turn, contribute to more physical tension . How do we interrupt this cycle of mind-body tension?  By beginning to deepen our breath, we can send a message to the brain that it is ok to relax. In fact, if we can learn to extend our exhalation by making it a little longer than inhalation, we trigger the parasympathetic response in the body, often referred to as “rest and digest”.  Since we all know that it is difficult to try something new in the midst of heightened stress, it is really helpful to develop a short, daily breathing practice. This could take as little as a few minutes out of your day. That way, the next time you feel anxious, stressed, or otherwise burdened by thoughts and emotions, your breath practice is there for you.  Here are two short breathing practices for to you to try:

Longer, Smoother, Softer Breath Practice

  • Find a comfortable position to be in for a few minutes (seated in a chair, lying on your back on the bed or the floor)
  • Eyes open or closed, begin to notice each inhale and each exhale. Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? Just notice, there is no need to change anything. Breathe in whatever way is most comfortable. See if you can notice the air moving in and out of the body. Feel your body move as you breathe.
  • Now see if you can make your breath a little longer (but not uncomfortable). Inhale a little longer and exhale a little longer. Do this for a minute or so.
  • See if you can now make your breath a little smoother. Try this for a minute or so. We are focused on taking longer, smoother breaths.
  • Now see if you can make your breath just a little softer as well. As you breathe, notice if you can extend that softness to areas of tension in your body or mind.

In summary:

  • Start with easy breaths in and out through the nose or mouth
  • Make your breath slightly longer
  • Slightly smoother
  • Softer
  • Extend that softness to areas of tension in your body or mind

Notice how you feel when you have completed this practice.

Lengthening Exhalation Breath Practice

  • Find a comfortable position to be in for a few minutes (seated in a chair, lying on your back on the bed or the floor)
  • Begin to link your attention to your breath, following each inhale and exhale. If it is comfortable, try to breathe in and out of your nose. If not, just breathe in any way that works for you.
  • Keeping your breath smooth and easy, count the length (how many seconds) of your next exhalation.
  • Every other breath, begin to add one count to just your exhalation, keeping your inhale comfortable. You will extend you exhale count until it feels like you have reached your comfortable maximum exhalation. Work with whatever comfortable exhale count you have reached and stay there for a few minutes. No need to count the inhale, just focus on long, smooth exhalations.
  • To end the breathing practice, begin to decrease your exhale count every other breath until you return to the original count. Once you have done this, take several smooth, easy breaths and return to your natural breathing rhythm. Take a moment to notice how you feel.

Please note that it is important that you remain comfortable with your breath throughout both these practices. It can actually create more stress to push your breath further than it is meant to go.


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