Deep Breathing and Guided Imagery for Anxiety

Young person meditating in natureIn counseling, many of the ways to address anger can also be used as tools to address anxiety. Deep breathing is one such tool. Getting that full, deep breath of oxygen will indeed help both our mind and body. Sadly, we may not stop to focus on our breathing or take in enough of that good oxygen. Furthermore, in times of distress, rapid breathing is more likely and will not help the thinking process or our ability to calmly make decisions.

When I sit in session and show clients that taking that breath is a bit more than a second or two process, they seem confused. Yet nearly everyone reports feeling remarkably calmer after trying it. Personally, I like to close my eyes so I am not focused on what is around me. Imagine as you take in that full breath through your nose that you are soaking in positive energy. Hold it a second or two, and then slowly breathe it out through your mouth. This is not a race. In fact, try to expel it slowly. Slowing down your breathing will mean you are slowing down your mind and body.

Now, in the process of this deep breathing, let’s add some guided imagery. For this, think of a calm place. I would like this to be somewhere you feel relaxed and positive. For me, it is the beach. I want you to see yourself there without having to focus on where else you may need to be or other things you may need to be doing.

Experience as many of the senses as possible. For example, sitting on the sand, I can feel it between my toes. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. I can smell the cool beach air and the scent of suntan lotion, and I can hear the gentle crashing of the waves and even children playing off in the background. I can also see the beauty of the area, as I watch the birds in the distance over the water. The beach is a calming place for me, so as I take in my deep breaths, I imagine soaking in the warmth and wonder of it, even as I am in my car, home, or wherever I am practicing.

The more senses you can envision, the easier it is to remain focused in the moment. Some people choose amusement parks or other loud venues. That’s okay as long you can focus and keep to your steady breathing pattern. The goal here is to consciously and intentionally slow our minds down while adding these positive and relaxing components. When asked if you should practice this when anxiety is creeping up, I say to try and practice these tools at least a few times a day. I don’t want you to have to wait until the anxiety is noticeable. Rather, if we are practicing relaxation, we will not only be in a better position to deal with it in those moments, but hopefully even fend some of it off in the first place via a calmer, more relaxed you.

Your mind is indeed a powerful tool. We hear about sharpening it with memory exercises and such to enhance our cognitive skills, but what about teaching it to relax? We live in a fast-paced society where expectations can be massive and relaxation is not taught in school. Rather, we learn how to be better students and thus more successful human beings. You need to teach your mind and body to calm down and be okay with relaxing once in awhile.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT, therapist in Chino, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dennis

    Dennis

    June 22nd, 2012 at 11:20 AM

    trying out deep breathing exercises can be a wonderful way to clear the mind and allow yourself the chance to focus on something positive and new. I know that one simple deep breath might not be a game changer, but how about trying it for a minute? And then two? You might just be surprised just how much of a calming and soothing difference this simple little act could have on your entire demeanor.

  • LYDIA

    LYDIA

    June 23rd, 2012 at 6:12 AM

    This is what has us all so messed up. . . we are taught that we always need to be on the go, go, go and that we must be lazy if we aren’t. . . but what is this doing to our psyche?. . . we have forgotten how to slow down and enjoy life. . . instead we are all very busy trying to cram as much into it as we can without ever taking the time to fully appreciate what we have

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    June 24th, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    Thank you for reminding us that we don’t have to wait until we feel anxious or stressed to practice these exercises. Why not try them a lilttle bit every day, so that when we do begin to feel this way we are already better equipped with ways that we can manage it and keep it under control?

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    June 24th, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    So true all. Well said

  • leanna

    leanna

    June 25th, 2012 at 12:45 AM

    good read..I’ve always had problems with handling anxiety and the deep breathing exercises that my sister showed me are really helpful.ive been into them for over a ear now and I find that I am able to control and handle my anxiety much better than wet before now..this needs to be inculcated in youngsters too,they go through some of the most trying situations and have far fewer means and outlets to actually do something about it.

  • Traci Adams

    Traci Adams

    June 25th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    If most people are like me, I have to say that we have been made to be afraid to slow down.
    We are told that if we slow down then there will always be someone who will pass us in this rat race that we call life, and that we will be the ones who get left behind.
    Well I say leave me behind!
    I am tired of always having to take life at such a fast pace that I have forgotten how to slow down and enjoy it.
    I really don’t think that this is the way that life, a real life, is meant to be lived.
    So I’m outta the rat race and going to try to learn how to love life and enjoy it again!

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    June 25th, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    The neat thing is we can all be models in showing friends and loved-ones how to slow down and do better in our self-care

  • Damien

    Damien

    June 26th, 2012 at 12:44 AM

    Stuart, I came here to read about guided imagery approach to get help with my anxiety but I could not imagine and visualize enough detail in my mind. Like you said you imagined a beach. I cannot recall enough detail of the place I want to imagine about. How do I go about this?
    Thanks.

  • manning

    manning

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    All of this sounds so good in theory, yet when I look at my real self I see me having a hard time with slowing down. i guess I have been running from place to place and job to job for so long now that the thought of slowing down and taking it easy is scary to me. What will I do with myself if I do actually take a little time out for myself? My dad did not retire full time til he was in his 70s so I guess I get that kind of go all the time mentality from him. So I don’t have that model that shows me it’s ok to stop and take a little time for me now and then.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    June 26th, 2012 at 7:45 AM

    @ Damien — What places have you been to / experienced that you feel relaxed? You may come across these in your everyday life, including the local park or even a room within your home. If we are still stuck, let’s look at starting to create such a place. Coming back to all the senses, what senses would you like to be experiencing in your calm place? Perhaps we can plug in certain smells (even oils we can use) that help you relax, sounds to help keep you in the moment (such as soft chirping birds or the rain), etc.

    @Manning — perhaps I will shift focus for this upcoming little article here and address this for all. Thank you!

  • JD

    JD

    May 17th, 2015 at 4:27 AM

    This is a great article. Thank you for writing it.
    According to pranayama (breathing) practices in yoga, it’s better to pause after the exhalation. When pausing after the inhalation, it creates more energy to the nervous system. If someone is already in an excitable state (anxiety), the pause after inhalation increases that to the sympathetic nervous system. Pausing after the breath on the exhalation allows the nervous system to settle down to the rest/relaxation response; allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in.

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    July 24th, 2015 at 10:44 AM

    Very good article. it is so important to learn how to breath correctly.

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