Two Easy Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

Hey guess what? They’re also free!

12.13.16
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I cried last night. I don’t know why. I do know why. It’s because a KKK-endorsed real estate developer who hires people he’s trying to deport to build golf courses and glass-and-gold penises in the sky will be our president. It’s because since daylight savings, which, along with summer break, is a time-melting ordinance meant to aid and abet child labor in the American Corn Belt from which I hail, I miss the sun all together before I even get the stamina to leave my bed.

Breathing helps with crying. Meditative, or even just mindful breathing, is really the only thing we always have control over. During my sensitive girlhood, my dad would advise me to “take three deep breaths” whenever I was crying over perceived social slights or possible ghosts that lived in my bedroom. I always found it a bit condescending (you’re not my mom, Dad!!!), but he was on the right track. I came to formalized breathing exercises via Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a kind of mindfulness therapy that I go to weekly to counteract my anxiety disorder and my dormant (but reawakening!) panic disorder.

CBT has been instrumental in me becoming a grown-ass woman, but therapy is expensive. Apps like Headspace and Buddhify are helpful tools, but their interfaces are sometimes strange and non-intuitive and they cost money, too. Really, all you need to take from mindfulness practice is breathing, which is usually cost effective and easy to come by, unless you paid for an adventure tourism-core climbing trip on some Himalayan peak at an altitude that provides very little oxygen. Or if you go to an oxygen bar in Las Vegas after one too many with Scott Disick at TAO Beach.

I always return to two exercises. They’re both free, because you facilitate them yourself. When practicing breathing, sit with your feet rooted firmly on the ground or on a chair with your legs crossed. You can probably lie down, but when I do that, I always want to get under the covers and sleep or read some infuriating Twitter conversation for 20 minutes that could better be spent calming myself down.

The first one goes like this:
Breathe in through your nose for five counts. Hold that breath for five counts. Exhale through your mouth for five counts. Here, I’ll guide you.

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One Two Three Four Five

One Two Three Four Five

One Two Three Four Five

This slows breathing down considerably when it becomes shallow or you think you may hyperventilate. The task of counting also gives your brain a plan of action. Your mind is certainly allowed to wander; it will never be completely focused. Guide it, gently, back from whatever it’s dwelling on. I’ve learned to think of wandering thoughts as leaves in a river or clouds in the sky. I can observe the thoughts, and then watch them pass. Another thought will come, and I can observe that one and let it pass. On and on forever.

The second exercise goes like this:
Make a peace sign, palm inward and place it under your nose. Use your middle finger to close your right nostril and breathe in through your left nostril. Then close your left nostril and breathe in through your right nostril. Continue as long as you need; I usually try to go for two minutes.

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This is called alternate-nostril breathing, and it is real science. Humans have one set of nerves that control the right side of the body and another set of nerves that control the left. These sets of nerves are in opposition: at any one time, the body has sympathetic nervous system dominance over one side of the body, and thus, one nostril. When our bodies have right sympathetic dominance and right nostril dominance, our heart rate and respiration increases. With left nostril dominance, our heart rate reduces. Alternate nostril breathing delivers oxygen to both sides of the brain at once, regulating our nervous systems.

If you’ve got no clean underwear, no hairs on your head that aren’t slicked with grease, nothing but expired yogurt in your fridge, no more toothpaste in the tube and no hope for what comes next, remember that you’ve always got this, the breath that’s continued working on your behalf for at least this long.

For more from Claire, check out The History of Acne and her gel peel investigation.

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