Many people come to my office seeking help for anxiety. Much of the time, their anxiety can be clearly connected to events going on in their lives. I offer them in the following ways:
- Teaching them how they can stay in the present moment
- Helping them learn to break the habit of imagining worst-case scenarios
- Teaching them how to breathe and ground their energy.
Armed with these new skills, many people find it easier to calm themselves, and they go on with life.
Sometimes, though, there is no clear situation or event connected to the anxiety. People report feeling 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 people often 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 punished, ignored, or ridiculed. As a result, they learned to tense their bodies and hold their breath to keep the emotions from coming out.
When people learn to unconsciously stay on guard against expressing these feelings and emotions, they may keep doing this for so long they become less aware that these feelings exist. But they are there, deeply held in the body and mind. When these repressed feelings begin to come to the surface in adulthood, an internal alarm goes off. “Dangerous emotions are about to erupt,” it warns. Current sad, difficult, or hurtful situations can all set off this “alarm.” All of these can trigger anxiety.
Does this description resonate with you? If so, don’t despair. There is hope! It does take some effort and courage, but you can learn to change your automatic anxious response.
You first have to learn to surrender. By doing so, you can learn to notice which emotions are beginning to emerge just before the anxiety starts. From there, you can learn to allow them, 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.
You can use the process described below to train yourself to allow emotional experience. It involves 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. 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.
- Sit 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. You might even want to give up. If you feel this way, keep it up! 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. Focusing your attention directly on the sensations and breathing into them allows them to expand. If you stay with the process, your body will gradually begin to cry in sadness, hurt, or anger. If these emotions begin to surface, surrender by allowing them to happen. They won’t last forever. When they’re out, you’ll feel lighter and calmer.
- Repeat the process. Remember you are teaching your body and mind something new. 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 okay. Just imagine each thought is contained in a bubble, and watch it 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.
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.
Sometimes there are so many impacted emotions that a little professional help and support may be beneficial. A trained counselor can support you through this process. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.
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.