Saturday 3 October 2009

Serenity Now: Breathing techniques

Stress and illness go hand in hand: stress from the physical toll on our bodies and stress from the constant attacks to our psyches. We've all heard the comments “why don't you just sit down and relax”, “stop stressing”, “if you managed your anxiety better you'd feel better”. Oh thank you, Confucius. Notice how these prophets of bliss run for the hills if you question them as to how you will achieve this blessed state of Nirvana. I love that episode of Seinfeld where George continually attempts to diffuse his stress by screaming “Serenity Now”!!! I think if I screamed that at these well meaning individuals I would feel less stressed. Mostly because I would be peeing myself laughing at the look on their faces!
There is no dispute that stress impacts negatively upon our bodies, even if you are in good health. When you have Bob or his like, the damage goes up exponentially. For example, when you get stressed your heart rate increases. If you are tachycardic, your heart is already going at marathon speed. Add stress and it's like you have the energiser bunny on smack inside your chest, with all the collateral damage that increases in your body. So what can you do? Relaxation wont cure Bob but it will make living with him more bearable, and that's always a good thing. There are many, many different forms of relaxation. Some simple and some complex. Before you head into the world of relaxation there are a few things you should know.
  1. There is not a one size fits all solution to relaxation and you may need to try many different types to find the one that's right for you. I have never been able to visualise my light much to the judgemental disappointment of my old yoga instructor. I always felt like I had been caught smoking behind the bike shed in her class. And I find that airy, synthesiser, new-age, whale song, music like fingernails on a chalkboard. Yet I have a girlfriend who swears by both.
  2. If you want instantaneous relaxation see an anaesthetist. Just like the Panteen ad says, “It wont happen overnight, but it will happen”. There's no point starting relaxation thinking you'll get instantaneous results. You'll only end up more stressed. All techniques take time to work. For some people it may take 6 weeks or more to get there.
  3. Practice is part of the program. Just like riding a bike you need to practise until the technique becomes automatic and unconscious.
  4. You need to practice when you're not stressed. If you begin when you're already stressed you are setting yourself up for failure. Practice whilst sitting on the loo, out in the garden, on the couch or lying in bed. I don't recommend doing it whilst sitting at the traffic lights, that's ok for your Kegels, but not for relaxation techniques which require concentration. I like to think of it this way. Would you rather learn CPR in a classroom with a smelly plastic dummy named Jean, or on the side of the road at the site of a multi-car pile up? The latter high stress situation is hardly conducive to learning.
  5. If you go in expecting it wont work, guess what? It wont work. You have to be open to the process.
  6. Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't work as quickly as you want. Every time I've tried a different technique I end up losing focus within 2 minutes, instead going through my shopping list and working out how I'll get child A to football practice and child B to karate both at the same time. This often happens for weeks before I can finally get into the flow and focus on the technique.
So where to start. One of the easiest places to start is with breathing. It may sound like the punch line to a blonde joke, teaching someone to breathe, but most of us don't actually breath well, even when relaxed. When we get stressed our breathing rate soars, it often becomes rapid and shallow, you can feel like you are suffocating and your chest can hurt. Unchecked, these stress responses feed on themselves: you feel like you are suffocating, you breath quicker, your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes shallower, and so on. By simply slowing and regulating our breathing we can calm down our physiological reactions and in turn calm our emotions. There's nothing complex about this technique. You can do it anywhere, any time, sitting, standing or lying, and you don't need to buy any special appliances or tools.
  1. Get comfortable.
  2. Place both your hands lightly on your diaphragm. (Just below your ribs). This helps to ensure you are breathing correctly. You don't need to do this once the technique is established.
  3. Breath through your nose rather than our mouth. If this is difficult stick with your mouth.
  4. Take a deep breath at the same time extend your belly, allowing your diaphragm to naturally expand and fully fill your lungs. This may feel awkward in the beginning.
  5. As you breath out suck your belly in, pushing your diaphragm up and fully emptying your lungs.
  6. Do this a few times until you get used to the sensation. This often feels odd when you begin but it allows for better breathing. Many of us are shallow breathers (suck our stomach and chest in as we breath in) without realising.
  7. Once you feel comfortable with this, it's time to start.
  8. Take a deep slow breath in, for the count of ten. You may need to start with less, eg count of 5, until you are used to it.
  9. Count in your head, 1.....2.....3.....4.....5.....6.....7......8.....9....10.
  10. To get the count right initially, watch the second hand on a clock or wrist watch.
  11. Then breath out slowly for a similar count of 10.
  12. When you breathe out try and relax your muscles. In particular, drop you shoulders. When you tense up your shoulders can end up next to your ears.
  13. Repeat this process 10 times.
If you've every done yoga or pilates you will have used a similar breathing technique. If you have trouble focusing on this and have access to a Wii Fit the breathing exercise at the start of yoga session are similar and you can visually follow the blue circle around the trainer.
So next time when someone tells you to “relax” or “stop stressing”, you can take a deep relaxing breath and stop yourself from throttling them.
Serenity Now”!!!!
Michelle :)


  1. Hi Michelle,

    Great post, I really liked your first point about finding what works for you - I think it can take a bit of trial and error to find a relaxation technique that suits.

    I found a cool website today where you can download free meditation/relaxation timers - just silence (for 15 mins, upwards to an hour) with a bell sound at the beginning and three bells at the end. Great for timing a relaxation/meditation session. I downloaded one and it's simple, but effective.

    I hope it's not bad blog etiquette to put an outside link in a comments section - just delete that last part if it is!

    I LOL whenever I think of that Seinfeld episode, especially the bit at the end where his dad goes absolutely beserk and starts screaming 'serenity now' at hte top of his voice.

  2. Thanks Emma and thanks for the info on the timers (I have no idea about the blog etiquette but I'm happy for the info). I'm all for a free website! There's one that does a great progressive muscle relaxation but I can't recall the address (brain fog strikes again). I always think it's easier to start with a tape to listen to rather than trying to remember each step.

    When I was doing my training we had to learn multiple relaxation techniques for ourselves before we could use them with patients. I always found it amazing that what works so well for one wouldn't work at all for others. I think that's why so many people give up. They try one, it doesn't work so they never try again. I'll be doing more blogs for 12 More Pages on other techniques.

    I love that episode it always sticks with me. The re-run came on at the same time I was learning progressive muscle relation and a girlfriend and I would whisper it to each other during the lesson and crack up laughing.

    I love your other blog to. We used to live in Darwin and went to Bali a number of times. I love Ubud and Seminyak. The great thing about Darwin was it had a huge Asian (in particular Indonesian) influence and I so miss all the fresh produce, you just can't get all the obscure vegies and fruits down here. There used to be a woman at the Parap markets who made the best laksa and so many other great dishes. I've yet to find a truly authentic Balinese restaurant in Melbourne.

    Michelle :)


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