Studies have shown that when we are stressed out, our brain activity is more likely to be confused and erratic, less able to focus, less productive, but using more effort. Our breathing is generally shallow and quick at the same time.
If we were to control our breathing during times of high stress, to slow it down and take full, deep breaths, these studies show that our brain activity also slows and settles. This is why deep breathing has become quite the therapy, and it is one of the most effective ways of managing stress. It is nothing new though: Ancient civilizations have been meditating and deep breathing for centuries. Because it works.
Have you ever noticed that when you are experiencing high stress, it is more difficult to settle the brain for sleep? That feeling of 'tired but wired' that keeps you tossing and turning for hours? Or when you wake up in the wee hours of the morning and can't drop back to sleep because the wheels started turning in your mind?
This is one scenario where deep breathing can be such a help. But let's take it a step further and throw in some visualization and see where you end up. It doesn't have to be night time, and you don't have to be trying to sleep. Anytime the pressure is getting up there and you need to bring it down, take a few minutes and walk through this process.
When I'm working with clients addressing some past emotional pain, we practice this first, then go back to it if they need a 'safe place' to settle in during the process.
Sit quietly for a few moments, somewhere free of interruptions and noise. Breathe deeply. Think of a place you love to be, where you feel safe and comfortable. Where you are most 'you'. (For the purpose of this blog, I will describe one of my own favourite places.) This is a place where you feel only good things; no judgement, no discomfort. Only security, love, happiness, all those good emotions. Got it?
Mine, for this exercise, will be the beach. An empty beach. In not-quite-the-height of summer, so it's not ridiculously hot. There are steps walking down to the sand. A tall, rocky bluff juts out to the water on my left and the beach stretches to my right in a horseshoe shape.
Be specific. Think about all of your five senses, not just what you see. What does it smell like there? Can you taste anything? What sounds can you hear? What does it feel like on your skin, in your hands, under your feet?
Start at the entrance to your happy place and feel all of it. When you stand outside the door, ready to open it and go inside, or at the top of the steps ready to walk down to the sand. Experience it.
Move into the place and look around. What's on your left, your right, above you, below you? Do things change around you as you go into this place?
I feel the warm breeze on my arms, and my hair flies around my face as I stand at the top step. Some hair gets stuck on my lip gloss, and as I pull it off I smell the slight coconutty scent of the sunscreen I wear. I have bare feet, so I feel the roughness of the boards as I walk down the steps, and as I hold the railing lightly I am careful not to get splinters on the weathered wood.
It smells fresh and alive. Salty mist settles on my lips and I taste it on my tongue. The crashing waves drown out everything else. I feel like I am hiding in a silent, pure space where I can sprawl in the warm sand and stare at the clouds far above. And just breathe.
Take your time. Breathe as slowly and deeply as you can. Experience this place and the emotions it brings. Nothing negative is allowed in this space. It is guarded and protected. Just for you.
Look around. Settle in. Breathe deep. Thinking of nothing but this place, what you see, feel, hear, smell and taste here. This is your happy place.
Whether you have 5 minutes or half an hour, this exercise can diffuse some high, negative emotion. It is a discipline. It is a way of taking your out of control thoughts captive. It settles a racing mind. It soothes a frantic heart.
It's not bad to experience high stress, and in fact there are times when it is within our best interest to do so. However when those high stress moments continue into days, weeks and years, we develop all sorts of problems, mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. Take a break sometimes. We have been blessed with the capacity to imagine for many reasons, and this is just one.
Life just gets messy and we do get wound up. Remember you have the tools to bring that stress level down when you need to. You've got this!