The Only Breathing Exercise That Helps Calm Me Down, Stop Panic and Control Stress
I was gasping for air. My body was shaking. I want nothing more than to calm down right now.
I get like this for a lot of things: When my longtime companion, my bird, suddenly died from a disease. College admission results coming out. A really bad test grade. Field hockey try-outs. A big presentation in front of a crowd. Fights with my parents.
I knew I got flustered easily, so I wanted to develop tools to handle it better. A self-improvement enthusiast, pulling out my laptop I looked up breathing exercises on Google, downloaded meditation apps, and bought self-help books to become the calm and collected person I wanted to be in times of stress.
At the suggestion of online results, I would put in headphones, sit very still, and try to let calming music and sounds of nature clear my mind. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. I focused on the rhythm and tried to prevent my mind from wandering. But it wouldn’t quite work, so I would instead use a guided meditation app, and listen intently to the soothing voice giving instructions. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
While these strategies aren’t completely ineffective, the solution would last about a whole 2 minutes before crumbling apart again. I would remember a sad thought. I would suddenly feel a deep fear. My breathing would quicken again, and pressure would build up behind my eyes, creeping from the bridge of my nose to my forehead. The tears I were holding back would fall and I would become very unsteady. How do I calm down?
A Better Strategy
I decided that there had to be a better strategy out there.
The breathing exercise apps didn’t work for me, but maybe it was onto something. A mental reaction from a physical one, I knew that physically steadying my breathing would help me feel emotionally calmer. But with the adrenaline running through my veins, instead of trying to calmly extinguish my anxiety response, I decided to go all-in and do the exact opposite by embracing the high intensity energy I was experiencing. I grabbed my headphones and went for a run instead.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. My breathing which was unsteady at first, slowly forced itself into a rhythm as I upped my pace. There was no room for panicked and unsteady breaths as I ran, and I found that as my breathing fell into rhythm, my mind became calmer too.
I still can’t use yoga or meditation to calm down. Maybe with more practice, controlling my thoughts with these tools will become useful, but while calming apps don’t work for me, I found that running in a way is a meditative breathing exercise. Drawing focus away from my worries, it instead forces me into a breathing pattern, and lets me release the stress that’s built up instead of me.
Even if it’s just 5 minutes, even if I start out with tears streaming down my face, unable to hold myself together long enough to utter two words in a row, as soon as I hit the pavement and force myself into a run, my body naturally falls into a calming state. I’ve never finished a run feeling worse than when I began — every single one, I come out calmer, steadier, and more at peace.
Working Out as a Meditative Breathing Exercise
I later found that running as a meditative breathing practice didn’t necessarily have to be running, but that it worked for all kinds of repetitive exercise movements. If it’s raining outside, or if I don’t have the same time or location access to go for a run, I instead do push-ups. Or I do squats. Sometimes burpees. Anything that gets my heart rate up and forces my lungs to fall into a repetitive breathing pattern.
You don’t need to be athletic to run, and you don’t need to be especially strong to do some squats — as long as it’s repetitive, paced, and gets your heart rate up, I guarantee this technique will work to calm down your nerves.
Just as emotional responses can trigger physical responses, controlling our physical responses can help us control our emotional triggers. Similar to how smiling can trick our brains into feeling happy, controlling our breath can trick our brains into feeling calm. Control your breath, control your mind.
I know it’s hard to feel in control of your emotions, but maybe try one more thing? Build on healthful strategies that work for you, and empower yourself with the tools you need to take care of yourself. If you’re not so good at meditation, maybe a run can be your solution, as it has been for me.
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