One of the simplest ways to begin coping in a crisis, or to just get through the stresses of an ordinary day, has been there all along: Breathe. Dorothy could've gotten home long ago with the help of her ruby slippers; you may find that simply breathing, with focus and attention, helps more than you imagine.
You've probably heard a thrown-off "Just remember to breathe" as you were entering a tough situation. Easily ignored, but there's wisdom there. Increasingly, that wisdom has been brought into mental health settings in the form of mindfulness meditation. An alphabet soup of evidence-based therapy approaches–ACT, DBT, MBCBT–include mindfulness as a crucial component. Studies are showing mindfulness actually works.
The essence of mindfulness practice is focusing on one thing in the moment. That one thing could be an activity (eating, walking), or a sensation (seeing, feeling, hearing), but the core of mindfulness practice is attending to each breath.
It generally goes something like this: Sit comfortably, your hands resting in your lap. If you're in a chair, try resting your feet flat on the floor. Now, turn your attention to your breath. Notice what it's like to breathe in–your stomach rising–and to breathe out–your stomach falling. Breathe regularly, noticing the sensation of each breath, one at a time. Your attention is likely to stray. Notice where your mind has wandered, and, without judgment, gently return your focus to your breath. One breath at a time.
Simple as that. But hard to do. Try it for a minute. Set a timer, if you like. Gradually extend the time–to three minutes, to five, and on up. Some suggest a 45-minute daily practice. But just a single focused breath can have an impact. (I admit, I'm more of a single-breath than 45-minute-session type.)
For many, silent meditation doesn't do the trick–there are too many distractions, external and internal. Here are some variations:
1) Count each breath. After ten breaths, start back at one. Try not to keep a count of how many sets of 10 you've completed. The idea is to give yourself a break, accept how you are right now, and not to compete with an idea of how things should be done. How you're breathing is how you're breathing. Still distracted? You might try counting each inhalation and each exhalation ("In one, out one...in two, out two.." and so on). That may be more likely to fend off nagging thoughts or distractions.
2) Forget all of the above. Instead, do a set of short, rapid inhalations, filling up your abdomen like a hand pump. Hold the breath for a moment. Then slowly breathe out. Hold there, then repeat.
Try 9 breaths in, hold for a 2-count, out for a 12-count, hold before inhaling for another 2-count. Or choose your own numbers. People argue about this sort of thing, but if there's hard science on the difference between a 9 versus a 12 inbreath count, I haven't heard of it.
3) Very simplest: Just take a deep breath. And then another. One more. Then go back to what you were doing. It's like taking a cigarette break without the nicotine and tar.
Give it a shot; it's free. See what works for you. And share it: If you've got a breathing routine that works, please post in it comments. No matter the approach, by stopping to take a breath, you get a break from distraction and get to simply be, if only for a few seconds.
Will Baum, LCSW
"B is for Breathe" in an ongoing series, Crisis Coping from A to Z.