Many people come to my office wanting help for their anxiety. Much of the time, their anxiety can be clearly connected to events going on in their lives. I help them learn to stay in the present moment, to stop their habit of imagining worst-case scenarios and to breathe and ground their energy. They learn new skills to calm themselves and they go on with life.
Sometimes, though, there is no clear situation or event connected to the anxiety. They report that they just feel anxious most of the time, for no apparent reason. They get temporary relief from changing their thinking and doing their breathing and grounding exercises, but they quickly feel anxious again.
When this happens, we have to dig a little deeper. I explain that, many times, people learn to hold in disturbing emotions such as sadness, anger, or hurt. They’ve most likely been holding them in since childhood. They learned as children that expressing sadness, anger, and/or hurt resulted in being chastised, punished, ignored, or ridiculed, so they learned to tense their bodies and hold their breath to keep the emotions from coming out. Sometimes they have done this for so long that they are not even aware that these feelings exist for them anymore. But they are there, deeply held in the body and mind. They have learned to unconsciously stay on guard against expressing these feelings. So as adults, when any of these repressed feelings start to come to the surface, an internal alarm goes off that “dangerous emotions are about to erupt.” Thus, they feel anxious. Sometimes, even current sad, angering, or hurtful situations can set off the alarm.
Does this description resonate with you? If so, don’t despair because there is hope. It takes some effort and courage, but you can learn to change your automatic anxious response. You’ll have to learn to surrender. You will learn to notice which emotions are beginning to emerge just before the anxiety starts. Then you’ll learn to allow them, and to (bravely) breathe through them until they’ve been fully expressed. Our bodies were made to experience a wide range of important emotions; when you surrender to the emotional experience, the “alarm” becomes obsolete.
Here is a process by which it is possible to train yourself to allow emotional experience. Basically, it involves learning to do focused abdominal breathing, relaxation, paying attention to bodily sensations, recognizing the sensations as emerging emotions, and allowing the emotions to happen. It takes dedication and practice, so the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
Focused Abdominal Breathing for Emotional Contact
I outlined the basic steps for focused abdominal breathing in my last article, titled Focused Abdominal Breathing to Reduce Pain and Anxiety. To use focused breathing for emotional contact and release, follow the basic steps and add a few more.
- Start by sitting in a comfortable position with your feet on the ground and your back resting against your chair. Settle into abdominal breathing, beginning with a full exhale. Inhale, imagining that you are inflating a balloon that reaches from your navel all the way up to your chest. Your shoulders should not move, and your belly should expand with each inhale and contract with each exhale.
- Continue slowly inhaling and exhaling full abdominal breaths. As you exhale, press the balls of your feet into the floor. If you start to get light-headed, that means you are breathing too quickly. Slow it down. Inhale, exhale, and press your feet. Repeat.
- Continue breathing, keeping your attention on the sensations in your body. You may notice that you start to feel annoyed, or that you want to just give up. If you feel this way, keep it up because that means the repressed emotions are starting to surface. Keep breathing. This is where surrender comes in. If you feel annoyed, frustrated, or like quitting or giving up, you’ll feel it somewhere in your body. Imagine breathing directly into those areas of your body that are feeling the sensations. By focusing your attention directly on the sensations and breathing into them, this allows them to expand—and if you stay with it, your body will gradually begin to either cry in sadness or hurt or feel angry. If these emotions begin to surface, this is when you surrender by allowing them to happen. They won’t last forever, and when they’re out, you’ll feel lighter and calmer.
- Remember, this is a new process you are teaching your body and mind. You will have to repeat the process many times. You may not feel anything the first few times, but if you keep at it, your body will gradually relax enough to start the process. You will probably experience many thoughts intruding into your mind. That’s OK. Just imagine that each thought is contained in a bubble, and watch the thought float away on the wind of your breath. Then bring your attention back to your breathing. The more you practice focused breathing, the fewer thoughts will intrude on your session.
- Sometimes there are so many impacted emotions that you may need a little professional help and support. A trained counselor can help you and support you through this process. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.
- Whether you are using focused breathing to clear emotional energy, ease pain, or just relax, it is good for your brain and body. The more you practice it, the better you get at it and the better it is for you. Aim to practice every day.
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