Just as a time out can be an effective way to help children calm down when they are acting out and starting to get out of control, when our thoughts and emotions start getting carried away, a time out is a great tool to help calm ourselves.
When we are feeling stress or anxiety, one of the most effective ways to slow things down and become more calm is to practice deep, or “abdominal” breathing. When we are stressed, tense, or anxious, our breathing often becomes more rapid and shallow. Our abdominal muscles may also get tense, interfering with the normal contraction of the diaphragm.
Breathing shallow and rapidly causes anxiety. This pattern of anxiety and shallow “chest breathing” can become a self-perpetuating cycle that in turn creates more stress and anxiety. You can download a handout that describes in detail more about abdominal breathing, its benefits, and how to do it.
A breathing time out is something you can do anytime, anywhere. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, your breath is always there, so you can always use your breath as an anchor to pull yourself back into the present.
The exercise below is one of the simplest ways to give yourself a quick time out from stress, anxiety, and any strong emotions related to things such as depression or anger.
2. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose (if possible) into the “bottom” of your lungs—in other words, send the air as low down as you can. If you’re breathing from your abdomen, your hand should actually rise. Your chest should move only slightly while your abdomen expands. (In abdominal breathing, the diaphragm—the muscle that separates the lung cavity from the abdominal cavity-moves downward. In so doing it causes the muscles surrounding the abdominal cavity to push out-ward.)
3. When you’ve taken in a full breath, pause for a moment and then exhale slowly through your nose or mouth, depending on your preference. Be sure to exhale fully. As you exhale, allow your whole body to just let go.
4. Continue breathing like this for 5 breaths, or longer if you want.
This simple time out is something you can give yourself any time you notice yourself starting to feel stressed or overwhelmed. You can do it many times throughout the day to help keep you grounded in the present and not let your mind run off and get caught up in stress and anxiety, or start dwelling in negative thoughts and feelings of depression or anger.
Remember, the key to dealing with stress is to do something about it before it starts to build. A breathing time out is a great tool to help you do this. In the next post, we’ll look at a Three-Minute Breathing Space and Mindful Check-In that you can also use in a similar fashion.