If you’ve ever found yourself in a meltdown moment, you know how annoying it is when someone says, “Breathe”.
Because when you’re freaking the heck out, other people’s advice usually seems stupid and irrelevant — just in general, and then all the more so in your specific semi-hellish situation.
When the thing you really think you need is either a tranquilizer or more chairs to throw at the wall, the idea of taking a deep breath is just not all that appealing. The value isn’t obvious.
And instructions to breathe if you don’t happen to be in a yoga class — and let’s assume your freakout moment is not happening in a yoga class — can come across as condescending.
You already are breathing. You have bigger and better things to worry about. Being told “breathe, breathe, breathe” by somebody who’s sitting there being all calm is really just an invitation to punch them in the face.
Why you need more than boring “take a breath” advice.
I know, this is probably sounding weird if you happen know that my duck and I are yoga professionals. Yeah, okay, we do spend quite a bit of time doing breathing exercises with people. Among other things.
I don’t want to speak for Selma here but I personally am not, god forbid, anti-breath.
It’s just that the “taking a breath” solution is only a partial solution — a half truth. It’s not the whole picture.
And what really rubs me the wrong way is how people often seem to think that just telling you to take a breath is the same as giving you a technique.
Taking a deep breath — or several deep breaths — can be incorporated into a technique. It can be the thing that gives you a second of pause that reminds you to use a technique. But — all by its lonesome — it’s not a technique.
And yet when you look up calming techniques, “just take a breath” is always at the top of the list.
Why people keep trying to make you breathe:
Well, aside from “they don’t know any better” and “not everyone has access to really useful techniques”, the most important thing to remember is that they’re trying to help.
Maybe it’s worked for them. Maybe they just don’t know what to say.
The good news is that — with a little work and doing two specific little things — you can transform the whole “taking a breath” thing into a technique that will actually work for you too. Will it become the best of all possible calming techniques? Meh.
But at least it will be something you can actually use instead of something that gets on your nerves.
The two things you have to do if you’re going to use breathing as a way to come back from freakout-land …
1. Combine with logical reasoning.
You have to remind yourself why you’re doing this. Logically. It’s got to make sense or you won’t do it.
Luckily, there is a scientific reason for why deep breathing can calm you down, and if you consciously focus on that reason, it reminds you to:
a. do it already
b. keep doing it
c. stop being annoyed about being told to take a breath, and
d. keep your brain involved in the process.
Here’s it is. Your brain is multi-lingual but its mother tongue is waves. Brainwaves.
The movement of your breath occurs in wave form too. If you were hooked up to a machine, your breath would be measured in waves.
The brain will always, always, always “read” and synchronize itself to whatever waves are around. Your breath will do the same.
That’s why you breathe faster when you’re upset — the choppy breath waves are reflecting your stressed-out brain. And when you consciously slow down the breath, you’re influencing that same process from the other side.
The more smooth and steady the waves of the breath, the more peaceful the brainwaves. Your brain then tells the rest of your system to chill.
If you know this, it’s very, very helpful to consciously remind yourself that this is why you’re doing some deep breathing instead of smacking the messenger.
I usually say something to myself like “Okay, let’s see if we can direct these breathwaves to help quiet down that brain chaos a little.”
If that’s not helping I might just say “Science works, bitches!“*
*If you don’t know what I’m talking about — or are horribly offended — please read this article where I first explain and then apologize to my mom.
Basically logic (and humor!): always a good idea. You probably already have a good sense of what type of information or persuasion works for you. Use it.
2. Make the process conscious.
It’s not enough to just take a breath or two. You want to breathe consciously — paying a ton of attention to the process.
Maybe you add counting to the mix (inhale on a count of four, exhale on a count of four). Maybe you add a tiny pause after the exhale. Maybe you imagine a color flowing in with the inhale and washing out with the exhale.
The point is, you’re not just taking a breath. You’re bringing all of your focus to that process.
You’re paying attention to the life force.
You’re intentionally bringing in new stuff and letting out the old stuff.
Now that you’re slightly more calm, start adding to your repertoire.
Yay, you did some breathing and you’re slightly more calm. But as I mentioned, breathing alone isn’t enough.
What is enough? Well, it isn’t about enough because it’s never going to be enough, but there’s definitely more out there.
Absorb information. Read the book Train Your Mind Change Your Brain. Read lots of books. Do yoga. Try Dance of Shiva (wacky yoga brain training).
Hang out with people who meditate. Learn more about brain science, about nutrition, about physiology.
Make the working-on-your-stuff process a big, crazy life priority.
Obviously, I would also recommend using at least a couple of the ten techniques in my Emergency Calming Techniques Destuckification Package, any one of which will point and laugh at “take a breath” and then proceed to thoroughly kick its ass.
Okay, kids. What have we learned?
Forget the idea that “take a breath” — on its own — is a legitimate piece of advice for someone who is having a moment. Start paying attention to what you need when you’re having a moment.
And then, yeah, breathe into it. Because your breath is always there for you, even when it’s not the only thing that’s there for you, and even when you’re not in the mood to appreciate it.
Because, when you use it consciously and intentionally, it’s good stuff.
Yes, it’s a paradox (I told you I come from the yoga world) but at the very least it might keep you from clocking the next person who reminds you to breathe.
[Edit: Whoah, my mistake. Thanks to my friend Eran for pointing out where my gentleman friend and I got the fabulously inappropriate phrase "Science works, bitches!" from. I heart xkcd.com (for the record). Eran now has totally earned the right to dance around and yell "Moral highground, bitches!"]