These words have been told to me over a million times throughout my life. Whether it was with a passive-aggressive tone or a concerned one, I genuinely think I’ve heard those two words more than any other ones in the English dictionary. While I used to brush it off and ignore it whenever someone told me to “Just Breathe”, I am now realizing how something so simple actually helped me in a major way. Obviously breathing isn’t the cure or secret recipe to recovery, but it is a technique that is beyond overlooked because of its simplicity and one that, when I used it correctly, became a huge advantage for my mental game.
I used to get angry; a lot. That isn’t a flex. In fact, it’s probably the characteristic of myself that’s made me the most embarrassed to be who I am. It got to a point where that was all my reputation was; a minor inconvenience would happen in life and the people around me would cower and anticipate a meltdown from yours truly. I felt out of control. I was afraid of myself. I also have a nasty habit of getting overwhelmed and flustered easily. Those who know me well enough know immediately when I’m starting to spiral; the blushed cheeks, the sweat on the forehead, the trembling hands. For a long time it felt like that was just who I had become as a person; an angry, overwhelmed hothead who overreacted to everything.
I could go in to depth and detail about how my anger used to control me and how I used to act solely on impulse, but I’m going to save that for another post. What I really wanted to emphasize here is how, in those flustered moments, I started to notice a trend: I was holding my breath. A great example of this, from my own personal life, happened this Monday. I was stationed at work, ready to wipe down the washroom after a young couple had used it (I was redeployed this summer to doing custodial duties as opposed to camp counselling because of the pandemic). As I was waiting, a group of about 25 circled around me; none of them wearing masks. They got so close that I wouldn’t have even had to extend my arm to touch their shoulders. The kids in the group started coughing, and I felt one of their coughs land directly on to my exposed leg. I started to feel all the usual symptoms: blushed cheeks, trembling hands, sweat on my forehead. I quickly realized I was having a major panic attack and, in the heat of it all, noticed I had started to hold my breath in.
Before I really dove into the self-healing journey, even just a year ago, a scenario like this would have ended a lot more embarrassingly for me. “BACK OFF!” I would’ve exclaimed to the group as I pushed myself through to get free. “DID YOU FORGET THERE WAS A PANDEMIC?? IDIOTS!”
But this time was different. Instead of going that easier, angry route, I closed my eyes and went to the breathing exercises that I had found worked best for me. I kept repeating “Just Breathe” in my head and after about 5 breaths I immediately felt more calm. How can something that we already do every day help change our reaction towards things with just a slight alteration? The power of breath will never fail to impress me.
As people with anxiety and extreme bursts of overwhelming anger, we all do either one of two things with our breath; we either hold it in or we try to take a deep breath in to calm ourselves down. Why the first one is a problem is pretty self-explanatory; less breathing leads to less oxygen-rich blood flowing to the brain. But the second one can also be problematic, as deep inhales are linked to our parasympathetic nervous system (which initiate the fight-or-flight response or those feelings of anger and anxiety). Instead, a real good technique that I have found success with is lengthening the exhale; which is linked to our sympathetic nervous system (which activates our ability to relax). See mom and dad? School did actually teach me something!
For all of you out there who may be going through moments similar to the one I explained above, or for people who just want breathing techniques to use for stressful times such as the ones we’re in currently, I’ll give you a quick list of the three major ones that help me without fail. I’m not saying they’ll 100% work for everyone, but they were life-savers for me.
I mentioned this one briefly above. Instead of taking that deep breath in stressful situations, try to push out all the air you have first. Once all the air is out, take a normal breath back in and continue this process; a long exhale and a shorter inhale. A time stamp I usually give myself that works is a 5 second inhale and an 8 second exhale.
That’s it! Super simple, but repeating it for about three minutes has always done wonders for me.
2. 6 in, hold, 6 out
I used this one a TON when competing in university swimming. I’ll get into it more later, but I would constantly step on to the blocks before a race and panic when the whistle blew. So not only has this technique helped me when I feel incredible amounts of anger and anxiety, it helped me the most to get in a positive and calm headspace immediately before a race.
Like the first technique, this one is incredibly easy. All you’re doing is inhaling for 6 seconds, holding that breath in for 6 seconds and then exhaling for 6 more seconds. I repeat this about 5 times if I’m in desperate need of it, but if I’m in a situation where I don’t require to calm down immediately (I.e I have a race but it’s in 20 minutes), then I take 5 minutes to repeat these steps.
3. 4-7-8 Breathing
This one is the exact same steps as the one I mentioned above, but is more popular and the one that a lot of therapists and professionals recommend (the one above is just my personal way that has worked for me). Here, you inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. The focus on the exhale causes your brain to relax. Additionally, counting these seconds down actually gives you something to focus on other than the thing that made you anxious in the first place!
Basically, in summary, breathing is something that is a necessity for our existence; without breath, we wouldn’t be alive. But it’s because of this that it is always overlooked when we talk about anxiety and panic attacks and angry outbursts. When you’re in a state of panic or anger, the last thing that initially comes to mind is to sit down and breathe; how can some air going in and out of my mouth make me feel better when my world is crumbling apart??
And yet, it does. And it works beautifully. Without these breathing techniques, I would still be having consistent outbursts of panic and anger; still afraid of the person I was and embarrassed to go out in public if there was any potential of a minor inconvenience. I’m hoping that this post reaches the people that need it, and that it can help even a small few of you when you’re going through a rough patch. For all of you who, just like me, feel the blushed cheeks, the trembling hands and the sweat on the forehead build up whenever something happens, I’ll leave you with this:
Just Breathe. It’s going to be okay. You’re amazing ❤