Here we are nearing the end of another strange week (well done us!). I’m not alone in holding in loads of worry and tension, right? To keep calm and productive, I’ve been relying on the breathing tips I picked up in drama school. It’s a tool kit I’ve added to through yoga, reading, etc. So I thought it would be useful to share some quick and really easy ways to use your breath to feel calmer, more in control and refreshed.
At drama school, they spend a lot of time teaching you how to breathe. Removing old habits and training you with better techniques (to enable you to project your voice without a microphone, for example). Breathing seems a weird subject to be taught – we all do it naturally, in and out, what can go wrong? Well, so much of our modern day is unnatural. We are spending an increasing amount of time constricted, like when we’re behind a desk (or stuck in four walls). So we squash ourselves down to fit, and lose awareness of how our breathing can help us feel better and live better.
So let’s start with this – can you tell if you’re breathing deeply or not?
Tip 1. A quick trick to feel your breath
Put your left hand on your breast bone, your right hand on your lower stomach area (below the ribs).
Your right hand should gently inflate, your left hand should not move at all.
Most of us, especially in stressful situations, are taking shallow breaths. But that’s ok – there are really simple things we can do to bring the breath down. The deeper you’re breathing, the more oxygen you are taking in, the more steady your heart-rate, and the calmer and more focused you feel. So here are a few prompts to help:
(It goes without saying that I am not a doctor, and you know your body best of anyone. So if anything doesn’t feel right – stop. If anything makes you feel lightheaded or short of breath – stop. It’s not a test, just a few simple tips to try. So take what’s useful for your body and leave what’s not!).
Tip 2. Before you can breathe in, you must breathe out.
This sounds obvious but bear with me. To take deeper, calmer breaths you need to release the air you’re holding. When we breathe out, we usually keep a bit back. Which is fine, but when we’re nervous or stressed we keep more back than we need. This is part of our fight or flight tenancies, if there’s a tiger round the corner then we have some air in reserve to start the run. At the moment, we’re all feeling like there’s a tiger (a virusy tiger) lurking when we leave the house! So our breath is likely to be shallow, tight and tense – holding back a lot, in case we need to flee. But you are probably reading this in your home, so give yourself permission to find a few minutes peace. You are in a safe space.
So, to feel slightly more relaxed now, take a long and measured breath out. The best way to do this without even having to think about it, is to breathe out with a “shhhh” sound (like you’re in a noisy library, or starting to swear).
By making a “shhhh” noise, you will naturally release the air gradually – which is calming. You can play with the length of the “shhhh”, but I’d encourage you to make it sound as steady as possible and keep going a few seconds longer than that first thought to stop.
Then just breathe in normally. Don’t stop to think about it.
I can guarantee that breath will be deeper. “Shhhh” that breath out, nice and slow. Breathe in again. Repeat this four or five times, and you should feel your breath lower in your belly. Notice how you feel.
Tip 3. Count your breathing to feel steady and centred
Another way to slow and deepen your breathing is to count it through.
Breathe in for five counts (normal counting, not fast or slow).
Hold the breath for two counts.
Release the breath for seven counts (it’s a higher number just to encourage a bit more release of that reserve you’re holding back).
Do this for a few rounds, and you should feel calmer and more centred within yourself – which is particularly useful for the start of a panic attack or when your mind is spinning off into worries. I also find this useful to do when I can’t sleep. You can play around with the counts to adapt it to what feels good for you.
Tip 4. A quick ‘let it go’ tension release
Breathe in, and say “let” to yourself slowly
Hold it for a second or two
Breath out, and say “go” to yourself slowly (this can be in your head or out loud, stretching out the “oooo”)
I like to follow this with a quick shake out of my hands and feet and a shoulder roll or two to release some physical tension. It’s a good way to manage your temper, or bring yourself back into the present from a worry.
Tip 5: Breathing out any anger and frustration
Find a solid wall, and stand facing it. You’re about a step or so away from touching it with your nose (keep a bit of distance, basically). Press your palms against the wall at shoulder height. Line your feet up underneath your hip bones, then step one foot back slightly so that you can push comfortably against the wall. Keep your knees and elbows slightly bent so your joints are relaxed rather than locked.
Now – breath in and out, and keep breathing as you push hard against the wall. Keep pushing and breathing for 30 seconds or so (set a timer so you don’t have to think about it). Keep pushing as hard as you can, like you’re trying to move the wall forward.
When the timer goes off, breathe in and out. Don’t worry about turning the timer off for a few seconds. Just breathe. It should feel looser, freer and deeper because your body is alive and activated. Notice how you feel.
I was taught this technique as a way to release a deeper voice – as a shy female my default is to muffle my voice, so connecting back to my ‘real’ freer voice was a big part of my drama school learning. This is one to remember if you’re about to do a presentation, or go into a situation where you want to feel more confident. But whilst we’re all at home, it’s also a good way to release some steam if you’re annoyed at someone in your household or just a bit frustrated at life in general!
Engage the body and you engage the breath (and switch off the brain!). So I’d also recommend finding a form of indoor exercise you enjoy, and do it in the morning if you can to set up your day positively. It can be really quick (my partner does 10 minute HIIT sessions) or more nurturing (I do yoga and barre as the stretches are good for my M.E. body). Anything where you can get your heart-rate going will naturally deepen and release your breath.
Your body knows how to breathe. These tips are ways to reconnect to that knowledge. They move your thoughts, habits and anxiety out of the way, creating some opportunities for your body to take charge. So right NOW: take a long and slow breath out (“shhhhh” with me!) get moving round your home, and find something nice to do.
When you need a break, have a go at any of these tips and let me know how you get on!