How to Breathe

You wouldn’t think there’d be a tutorial on something as basic as breathing,.. every living person does it, right? But as it turns out, many people try to do this “deep breathing” thing, and don’t get the most out of it; then conclude that it doesn’t work. So, if you’ve tried this before, I encourage you to give it another go with my instructions and see if it doesn’t help.

Deep breathing is an exercise often encouraged when you’re feeling anxious or restless and having trouble sleeping. If you’ve ever been in a yoga class they might have instructed you on how to breathe from your diaphragm, for the purpose of centering and relaxing yourself before meditation. While teaching my clients how to use deep breathing to help reduce their anxiety, I’ve noticed myself repeating these tips:

  1. Breathe from the diaphragm, not the chest. We tend to do shallow breathing from our lungs because it’s quicker and mostly efficient for our daily needs. Shallow breathing uses the lungs and only cycles out a small percentage of your lungs’ actual capacity for air. Inhaling brings oxygen from the atmosphere into the lungs to enter our blood stream and feed our cells. Deep breathing captures more of our lungs capacity, bringing a greater amount of oxygen into our bodies. To tell if you are deep breathing or shallow breathing, lie down or sit comfortably and place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. Take a breathe and notice which hand rises. If you are shallow breathing your chest hand will rise, and if you are deep breathing the hand on your stomach will rise. Keep playing around with different ways of breathing until you can make your stomach hand rise. Here is a YouTube video demonstrating diaphragmatic breathing.
  2. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Both the inhale and the exhale should be smooth and as slow as you can handle.
  3. Exhale completely. This is one of the biggest errors in deep breathing! Try exhaling now and when you think you’ve done it, stop. Now without inhaling, see if you can exhale again. This should feel like your abs are contracting and your lungs are squeezing out every ounce of air they have left. Now you have truly, fully exhaled. With complete exhales you’ll cycle more stale air our of your lungs to be replaced with fresh, richly oxygenated air.
  4. Complete an inhale/exhale cycle at least 5 times. When people “stop and take a deep breath” they tend to do exactly that, just one big breath. Or at most three. If each breath is only cycling out a fraction of your lung’s capacity of stale air, then you’ll need to do it multiple times to get the benefits of a full lungful of fresh air. Experiment with five to ten breaths and see what works for you.

If this has worked for you, you may feel slightly tingly or even ready to lie down for a nap. Deep breathing not only clears out air pollutants and stale air from the lungs, it activates your Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is responsible for the sensation of being relaxed. This is a great technique to use whenever you’re feeling anxious or might become anxious. I have found it most useful at the start of my day, when I notice I’m holding my breath, and before falling asleep.

Questions, comments, concerns? Email me at tara@athenacounseling.com

 

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Changing the Definition of Success

I have a new web cam being delivered today, so the companion video to this post will hopefully be in awesome HD video format! The video will go over the process of Deliberate Practice; a method of how to practice new skills to increase your abilities in any domain. This blog is my current focus of deliberate practice. I hope you’ll see my writing style improve, my topics become more relevant to your interests, the frequency increase, and the interaction between author and viewer expand so that I’m responding directly to your questions.

My website overall is a work in progress and something I’ve been struggling to put together for months. The main obstacle is the inner voice in my head that says “your writing isn’t good enough,” “you don’t make any sense,” “no one wants to read what you have to say.” Lots of people have these voices creeping in the back of their mind when they are trying something they’ve never done before. Doubt is a quick companion when you have no data to shut it down. Which is why, after my first steps of becoming aware I’m talking to myself in this negative way, and giving myself some room to believe these thoughts probably aren’t true, my next steps are to gather data and make a plan.

When I wasn’t sure what to write about, that voice said “no one want to read what you have to say.” That’s a rather easy fix, ask people what they want to read about! So I put out of a poll and got several awesome topics for future blog posts which are coming down the line. One doubt down because I didn’t just swallow that negative automatic thought, I questioned it and put it to the test. Now, your writing isn’t good enough and you don’t make sense might sometimes be true. I’m not a professional writer and I tend to have very high standards for myself when it comes to anything I produce. Combine perfectionism with an anxious mind and you get a perfectly paralyzing merry-go-round of futility. The fact that part of this self-assessment might be true meant they were good candidates for deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice means improving the quality of your practice, not just the frequency. If you’ve ever watched someone who has been using computers for years but their typing has never improved, you can see that activities practiced every day mindlessly don’t improve. The magic is in the focus and breaking down the general skill into it’s smaller components. With this website, I’ve been frustrated by learning to use a new tool, trying to become a top-notch web designer over night, and struggling with the content. It’s easy to see how quickly I could become overwhelmed. The first step of deliberate practice is to break it down into smaller components. How small these are depend on the domain of your task and what’s doable for you. After I chose to focus on my blog, the initial component parts became:

  1. Maintain a blog with at least one post a week
  2. Improve writing style by passing through an editorial process
  3. Increase relevance of blog by polling readers about what’s important to them
  4. Increase value of blog by linking to other relevant material and experts

This looks much more manageable to accomplish. This list becomes a guide for redefining success. When success was defined as – “write a stellar blog post on a topic of interest to everyone and with writing that could win a pulitzer” – I crumbled. But if my metrics say that getting something out, anything, even if it’s just a call to reach out and reconnect with my readers, once a week? That’s doable. And with that skill acquired and turned into habit I can focus on the next component.

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Growth Work:

Next time you’re really struggling with developing a new skill, ask yourself whether you’re trying to tackle too much at once. Notice if you’re having any negative automatic thoughts that are paralyzing you from making any progress. Sit down and write out what skills are required for your particular goal and break it down into smaller components that seem like you could successfully manage them. Give yourself credit for accomplishing the component tasks and reflect periodically on how they all stack up and build into progress on the larger goal.

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The Gift of Asking

“I don’t want to be a burden.””

“She’s got enough going on without adding my troubles to it.”

“Why would anyone want to help me?”

In my office, and in my life, I’ve watched a lot of people struggle with the weight of their problems all on their own. Like some sort of Sisyphean punishment, they feel doomed to carry the weight of their circumstances alone, on their own feeble shoulders. When I bring up the subject of asking for help, the excuses for why that’s not an option come pouring out – something about bootstraps, or why they don’t deserve the help, or the shame of begging. But should a friend in need ask for their assistance, these same people are often quick to offer a hand, a tissue, a home cooked meal, a small loan, a precious hour of their time. Why are we so terrified to ask when it feels so good to give?

I’ve struggled with asking for help, just like anyone else. Some things are easier to ask for than others – editing advice on your cover letter and a ride to the airport are easier requests than helping you through rehab or loaning you money for rent. But I’ve watched people struggle through even the small requests. “What have I done for them that they should drive me to the airport?” The underlying question being “do I deserve to ask for this?” and the follow up fear being “can I withstand a rejection?”

When we ask for favors we think in terms of a mighty tally sheet. Have I done enough favors for this person to warrant asking for one in return? But when we give, we think in terms of intangible exchanges like love and friendship. When we give, we don’t break out our tit for tat calculator and make sure you’ve done enough things for me to warrant you this favor. So when I’m struggling with something on my own that I know I could use some help with, I remember, people love to give, and they give for love.

Amanda Palmer describes the act of giving as a collaborative exchange. One in which this act of giving says “I love you.” So I keep this in mind. Asking is not a one-sided beg for something beyond what I deserve. Asking for help is offering an opportunity to connect in an authentically human way, to collaborate on a problem and invite someone into a precious part of my life where I am vulnerable. And inviting another to sit in that vulnerability with me and connect, is the greatest gift I can give.

This post was inspired after a first reading of Amanda Palmer’s autobiography, The Art of Asking.

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Trying new things

Thank you for exploring my website and welcome to my blog. I’ve never written for a blog before so, it seems fitting that the topic of this first entry is about trying new things, and especially, trying new things you’re not sure you’ll like. Starting this blog is not my only first today. I was introduced to a website of free yoga classes online. I’ve been struggling with stress lately and I’ve tried every tool in my toolkit; none of them worked. I tried a hot relaxing bath, some stretching, deep breathing, a mindfulness exercise, exercise, going for a walk, watching some mindless tv, reading a book, cleaning. As you can see I didn’t just try one thing and give up, I tried lots of things, but still, none of them reduced my stress to what I’d call a manageable level. So, I was open to suggestions and primed to try new things by my strong desire to alleviate my pain.

There were a ton of videos to choose from. Do Yoga With Me has hundreds of videos, and I haven’t done yoga since a one semester course during my undergrad. I guess I was turned off then by the whole “be a tree in the wind.” It didn’t suit my mindset or where I was in my life. But, here I was with a problem and willing to open up to the possibilities that even something I used to think was somewhat silly, might help. What did I have to lose? Another 20 minutes of sitting around stressed? So I picked one that was so completely out of my realm of experience – kundalini yoga. The woman in the video was dressed all in white with a feather-light blue shawl draped around her shoulders. She had a soft, kind voice, and a look like she lives and breathes yoga. I put my assumptions and notions to one side and dove in for whatever experience I was about to have.

There was some talk of chakras and connecting to infinity that I vaguely understood, but not enough to be rightfully opinionated about it. I decided this experience would best serve me at face value and without judgment. So I went through the whole video and at the base of it was breathe control, settling into silence, and some light stretching. I found the whole thing quite calming.

What made this experiment work was that I went in open minded – just to try it out. And crucially, I set my evaluative mind aside for the time being and went in like a naturalist, observing my surroundings and collecting data without evaluating it until it’s done. By setting it up as a test that I didn’t have to like or dislike, I was able to gather some real information. And last, I ignored the temptation of all or nothing. I was able to walk away from this new experience taking what worked and leaving the rest behind.

If you’re faced with a problem and none of your tools are working, see if you can’t be open to trying something new, or something strange. Some part of the experience just might help.

 

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