It seems that every day during 2020, I am having to come back to my own breath. With waves of emotions, news stories, and the ever-present pandemic, it is easy to lose touch with ourselves and wonder how we can better take care in these trying moments.
Often, we are told mindfulness is a cure-all for stress and anxiety, yet it is not so. Mindfulness and breathing can actually be triggering or foster a space in which we dissociate, and though we are doing all the “right” things, we feel no better, and perhaps even worse overall. The following work is a trauma-informed approach to breathing exercises for those who understand their own window of tolerance, with a following grounding exercise that anyone can utilize. It is particularly helpful for those of us who are currently zoning out, feeling disconnected, and needing relief in a more embodied way.
Before utilizing these simple techniques to return to the breath, I’d support you in first assessing if breathing will be helpful for you. Are you able to breathe and not become disconnected from your physical and emotional self?
A simple breathing exercise is to notice three breaths. Wherever you are, simply notice the next three breaths, without forcing them to be deep or calculated. Notice if they are shallow, where in the body you feel the breath, the temperature of the air as it enters your nostrils, and the rise and fall of the chest or ribs with the inhalation and exhalation.
Here’s a second breathing exercise to help soothe the body, slow the heart rate, and create a sense of calm. Allow yourself to take an inhale for a count of 3, hold momentarily at the top of the breath, and then exhale for a count of 6 (or inhale for 4, exhale for 8, etc). Repeat this cycle 3-5 times. It can also help to feel the fingers touching each other for each of the count. For example, thumb and pointer finger, thumb and middle finger, thumb and ring finger, thumb and pinkie finger, which makes a count of 4. Double that for eight. Truly notice the sensation of the fingers touching, what does your skin feel like, what is the temperature; describe it to yourself.
For those who find breath work inappropriate, sensory work through grounding exercises can be helpful. These can be physical or mental techniques that help you pull away from painful thoughts and/or challenging emotions.
Noticing the five senses is the most straightforward way to ground.
What do I see? Truly looking at the edges and shapes of what is around you, as if you’ve never seen it before, and want to take in all the details. What do I smell? Observe any scents in the air or around you, or even on your own skin or essential oils you might have nearby. What do I hear? Noticing sounds around you, near and far away. What did I have as my last meal? Can I taste it? What did it taste like? What is a meal I love that I can taste right now as I’m thinking about that meal? What textures are around me, or touching my skin? Is there a texture I can touch and observe in this moment? Fluffy jumpers and blankets, pets, and fabric chairs all make nice texture sensory experiences. A weighted blanket can also be soothing and calming from a sensory standpoint.
Mental grounding exercises might include visualizations of favorite places, environments that felt safe and calm, pleasant travel or family memories, and thinking again of all the senses in those memories (making it a sensory experience.) What color is it? What is the smell? What is the sound? You can also go over lists such as naming everything in the surrounding space that is green (or blue, etc.) Alternately, you could also spell out the objects you see around you. For example, if stress is becoming overwhelming and you are having a bodily response, look at what is around you and begin to spell it in your head. Chair. C-H-A-I-R. Window. W-I-N-D-O-W.
I hope these are helpful as a starting place to develop a toolbox of coping strategies you can utilize in times of stress, anxiety, or depression. I would like everyone to know that having a hard time right now is an appropriate emotional response. Your feelings are valid. Coping skills, the ability to catch yourself, and support systems can help build resilience, which mitigates chronic stress.
If you are feeling hopeless or out of control, please do not hesitate to seek out professional support in the form of a counsellor, therapist, or support group.
Claire Fountain (@cbquality) is the wellness culture of tomorrow. A writer, therapist, and celebrity yoga instructor whose globally recognized TrillYoga continues to influence the fitness industry. Claire inspires with her unorthodox and realistic approach to yoga and mental health, while promoting a conscious lifestyle through insight and education. Her work focuses on the intersection of women, well being, mind body integration, self worth and the stories we tell ourselves with experience ranging from over half a dozen e-books and articles to international classes and speaking engagements.