I have called this technique Breath Focus for simplicity but it is also known as being mindful of your breath in the field of Mindfulness.
Many anxiety sufferers have at some stage been taught breathing exercises as a means to controlling anxiety.
In some you may have been taught to breathe from a particular part of your body, often the abdomen. In others the breathing is regulated by counting up to a certain number for each part of the breath.
If one of these techniques works for you then that's fine.
There are, however, many cases where such techniques which are based on regulating the breathing in some way, don't work at all. They usually fail when the sufferer uses them in an attempt to block out their scary thoughts.
On the one hand the sufferer is trying to breathe in a particular way whilst at the same time they are monitoring the panicky feelings they have. Whilst monitoring these feelings they are also focusing on them and this generally increases the anxiety.
So they are now failing on both counts. They are not truly achieving a greater sense of calm by using the breathing technique and they are also becoming more anxious and so telling the survival instinct that it was right to have warned them in the first place!
So why is a Mindfulness-based breathing technique better?
Mindfulness is not so much about doing as being aware i.e mindful
When practising a Mindfulness technique, and with breathing in particular, the aim is not to change the way you are breathing in any way at all. All you do is simply observe your breathing pattern.
After all, none of us has to pay attention to our breathing for it to happen. When we are asleep our breathing goes on.
I don't know about you but when I was a child, along with the other kids I played with, we used to try and kill ourselves by holding our own breath. Needless to say none of us ever succeeded.
Your body can look after its breathing without any interference from you!
So, if your breathing is very fast and shallow, you observe it just as it is. If your breathing is slow and regular, you observe it just as it is. In Mindfulness there are no expectations about things having to be a certain way. You simply observe what is.
Because you are not putting any pressure on yourself to be doing anything in particular you can't possibly fail. It is failure or the fear of failure which usually causes the negative arousal to increase in anxiety-provoking situations. With Breath Focus you can't fail.
How to mindfully focus on breath
1. Practise doing this at home when you are not feeling anxious. It is important that you learn the technique itself before you try and use it in a situation when you are anxious.
2. As you inhale allow yourself to be aware of the sensations this creates. For example, you may feel a sensation in one or other of your nostrils as the air enters - you may not.
3. Be aware of where the breath goes to in your body, which bit of your body moves, however slightly, as you breathe. You don't deliberately make any part move, you just observe what does.
4. As you exhale the breath again be aware of any sensations this creates.
5. Allow yourself to be aware of the little pause between one breath and the next.
6. Allow yourself to be aware of the short pause between each in-btreath and each out-breath
7. Most importantly throughout this whole process, at any time your mind wanders away from your breathing and you catch yourself thinking, you simply let the thought go and re-focus back onto the sensations of breathing.
You will probably find that you are unable to keep your focus totally on the sensations of breathing for any more than one breath at the most to begin with. That doesn't matter!
It's not about how long you can remain focused on the sensations of breathing. What you are learning is to notice when your mind wanders or starts to talk to you about what you are doing. When that happens you simply move your focus back to the sensations of breathing.
This is a technique that requires practise but is one you can practise anywhere at any time just for a breath or two.
I have recorded a very short download - breath focus mp3 - which describes this as you do it.
If using this technique as a meditation exercise you can continue and add in awareness of other things. For the purposes of Breath Focus and how to use it as a technique to reduce negative arousal especially when a suggestion of 'what if…?' arises, simply focus on two or three breaths and initially go Dead Weight at the same time.
This is usually enough to enable you then to re-focus your thoughts or your awareness onto the present moment and to release any unhelpful Head Conversations you may have been having.
There are commercially available cd's and mp3 downloads which focus on using breathing mindfully for anyone who feels drawn to this particular form of meditation.
Other Anxiety Zappers
Or return to overview of Self Help Techniques for Overcoming Anxiety