Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking - S.J. Scott, Barrie Davenport (2016)

Part I. DECLUTTERING YOUR THOUGHTS

Mental Declutter Habit #1: Focused Deep Breathing

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

– Thích Nhat Hanh

Even though you take about 20,000 breaths a day, you probably don’t think about your breathing very often. Your brain adjusts your breathing to the needs of your body automatically. When you’re climbing stairs or going for a run, you don’t have to think, “I better breathe deeper and harder to get more oxygen to my muscles.” It just happens.

To adjust your breathing to your body’s changing needs, sensors in your brain, blood vessels, muscles, and lungs handle the job for you. However, whenever you want to take over, you have that power. You can slow down your breathing, change where you breathe from (chest or abdomen), and even make your breaths shallow or deep.

A change in breathing is often the first sign that our thoughts are overwhelming and stressful. When we feel anxious, depressed, rushed, or upset, we may experience rapid breathing or shortness of breath. Our modern lifestyles and job settings also contribute to improper, shallow breathing.

As Barrie writes in her book Peace of Mindfulness: Everyday Rituals to Conquer Anxiety and Claim Unlimited Inner Peace:

Unfortunately, we are sedentary most of the day, so there is less need to breathe deeply, the way our ancestors did in order to hunt, gather, farm, and perform other manual labor. Sitting behind our desks or slumped on the couch watching TV, we have developed a habit of short and shallow breathing.

When we’re in a hurry and rushed, our breathing follows suit with quick, nervous breaths. When we’re stressed, anxious, or focused on a problem, our bodies contract, and we bend forward, with our heads down, arms together, and muscles tensed.

All of these postures constrict breathing. Sometimes when we’re absorbed with stress and worry, the muscles that move the thorax and control inhalation and muscular tenseness clamp down like a vice to restrict exhalation, and we forget to breathe altogether.

You may not pay much attention to your breathing and your posture, but by simply becoming more aware of how you breathe, you foster a calmer state of body and mind.

Start paying attention to your breathing and simply become aware of how you are taking in and releasing air throughout your day.

We recommend keeping four things in mind while building the focused deep breathing habit :

1.                 Rather than slouching at your desk or on the sofa at home, sit up straighter to allow more room for your lungs to take in oxygen. Become aware of areas where your body is tense, and mentally “breathe into” those areas, seeing them relax as you breathe.

2.                Be conscious of breathing through your nose rather than your mouth. Your nose has defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and excessively cold air from entering your body. Your nose also can detect poisonous gases that could be harmful to you. Viruses and bacteria can enter the lungs through mouth breathing, so let your nose do the work.

3.                When you inhale, use abdominal breathing by gently pushing your stomach outward, and breathe through as though you’re filling your stomach. On the exhale, breathe out slowly and allow your stomach to return to its normal position.

4.                Pay attention to the difference between shallow breathing (which stops at the chest) and abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing (which fills the lower lobes of the lungs and encourages full oxygen exchange). Abdominal breathing also massages the abdominal organs through the movements of the diaphragm.

One of the best ways to detach from negative thoughts and gain control over your mind is through slow, deep, rhythmic breathing . This focused breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate, relaxing muscles, calming the mind, and normalizing brain function.

Deep breathing helps you feel connected to your body, shifting your awareness away from worry and quieting the inner dialog in your brain. The physiological changes that occur with deep breathing are referred to as the “relaxation response .”

The relaxation response is a term first coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. He wrote the book The Relaxation Response , in which he shares the benefits of a variety of relaxation techniques (including diaphragmatic breathing) in treating a wide range of stress-related disorders.

Benson says, “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress…and the opposite of the fight or flight response.”

In addition to promoting the relaxation response, deep breathing has many well-researched health benefits. Here’s a summary of what deep nose breathing can do for you:

·                   Boost nitric oxide, a powerful immune-boosting molecule produced in the sinuses during nose breathing.

·                   Improve the quality of your blood through eliminating toxins and increased oxygenation.

·                   Assist the digestion and assimilation of food through a more efficient stomach and digestive system.

·                   Increase the health and function of the nervous system by increased oxygenation.

·                   Improve the function of the abdominal organs and the heart through increased circulation.

·                   Help prevent respiratory problems as the lungs become stronger and more powerful.

·                   Reduce blood pressure and help prevent heart disease as the heart becomes more efficient and stronger and the workload on the heart is reduced.

·                   Assist in weight control as extra oxygen burns excess fat more efficiently.

By practicing a few minutes of deep abdominal breathing every day, you are building a life-long habit proven through years of research and testing to clear your mind, reduce stress, and promote relaxation of the mind and body.

Barrie likes to practice deep breathing several times a day when she takes a break from work and before bed to prepare her mind and body for sleep. You can practice mindful breathing just about anywhere at any time of day, especially when you find yourself overthinking or feeling stressed and anxious. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing a day can improve your sense of well-being and mental calm.

However, you might want to develop a regular practice of deep breathing at a specific time of day, as focused breathing is the foundation for a meditation practice, which we’ll discuss in the next chapter. If you establish a 5 – to 10-minute breathing habit, you can easily use this habit as a trigger and starting point for your meditation practice .

Here is a seven-step process you can use to develop the practice of deep breathing on a daily basis:

1.                 Determine a time of day to practice deep breathing, preferably after a daily habit you perform consistently, like brushing your teeth.

Morning is always a good time to practice, as it sets the tone for your day. However, you may find you want to take a break in the middle of the day, as things get more hectic during your workday. Before bed is another good time, as it promotes a restful state before sleep.

2.                Select a setting for your breathing practice in a quiet space where you won’t be distracted or interrupted. Turn off your phone, computer, and any other device that might disturb you.

3.                Set a timer for 10 minutes.

4.                Sit on the floor with a pillow in a meditative position, like the lotus position, or in a chair with your spine straight and feet planted on the floor. Let your hands rest gently in your lap.

5.                Inhale slowly through your nose until your lungs are filled to capacity, allowing your stomach to push out on the inhalation.

6.                At the end of the inhalation, pause for a count of two.

7.                Exhale slowly, smoothly, and completely, allowing your stomach to return to its natural position. Pause at the end of the exhalation as well.

When you first begin, don’t take in too much air in one breath. Start by breathing to the count of four, pausing for the count of two, and exhaling to the count of four. If you notice you’re hyperventilating, don’t breathe in quite as deeply. With practice, you’ll enlarge your lung capacity and can inhale more air.

Now let’s move on to another mindfulness practice that involves focused breathing but takes you to another level of calm, mental clarity, and inner peace.