I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship. ~Louisa May Alcott
From anxiety and sadness, to grief and frustration, waves of emotion (“energy in motion”) can knock you about. They can also put the mind in a spin, whooshing you away inside their story lines.
This pulls in more dark thoughts and feelings, and before you know it, overwhelm is sweeping you off course, and you’re spiralling down.
“What you are experiencing is so understandably human. Hello. Welcome to the family” – Dennis Tirch
Although storms of emotion will show up from time to time, how you respond to them is everything. And there really are skills you can learn, to hold yourself steady.
I encourage you to experiment a bit with the strategies below, to see which ones work best for you. If for some reason you don’t like focusing on the breath, you can go straight to techniques 3, 5, 6 and 7, and skip the focus on breathing.
1. Slowed breathing
Slowing the breath, you slow down the body, and slowing down the body you slow down the mind… you can slow down your racing mind and experience of threat by slowly and deeply breathing into the present moment. – Dennis Tirch
If it’s possible to do so, close your eyes. If you can’t that’s okay, it’s not essential. Allow your breathing to be a few seconds longer than normal, noticing the pause between the breaths. Aim for your in-breath and out-breath to be around 4-6 seconds long, noticing the space between each breath.
2. Square breathing
The Navy Seals use this technique to stay calm and focused. It is a way to slow your breath and deepen it, as described above; the “square” gives you an image and structure to “hold on to” while you breathe.
You can either hold on to the image of a square in your mind as you do the practice, or you could draw a square in the air or on the desk in front of you with your finger as you breathe.
I encourage you to experiment with it; many of my clients find it the most useful calming technique.
Start with a slow breath out, emptying your lungs. Then breathe out to a slow count of 4; pause for 4 seconds; breathe in to a count of 4, and so on.
3. Trace your hand
Tracing the outline of your hand as you breathe, makes this a handy (groan) and simple practice to remember:
(a) Starting at the wrist of your non-dominant hand, use the pointer finger of your other hand to lightly trace the outline of your thumb. Slowly breath in as you trace to the top of the thumb, where you pause briefly between breaths;
(c) Then breathe slowly out as you run your finger back down your thumb,
(d) Noticing the pause between the breaths, and continuing to trace the outline of your fingers.
Here is Jud Brewer’s take on this practice,
4. Take ten breaths on purpose
(a) Allow your shoulders to loosen, open and drop. If it is safe to do so, close your eyes.
(b) Breath out as slowly as possible, until the lungs are completely empty. Then allow the lungs to refill by themselves.
(c) Take ten slow breaths, counting each one.
(d) As you count, notice the rise and fall of the breath… the cool air within your nostrils as you breathe in, and the warmth of the air within your nostrils as you breathe out. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your tummy as you breathe, and the gentle rise and fall of your shoulders.
(e) See if you can let your thoughts come and go, as though they are flocks of birds flying by.
(f) Finally, notice your breathing, and your body at the same time. Your arms, legs, head, neck, shoulders.
(g) Lift your eyes, look around the room and notice what you can see and hear.
Where can you point your feet now, so that they can take you in a direction that will be meaningful or helpful to you?
5. The power of five
Five is a random number, it can be any.
(a) Pause for a moment. Set the intention to do this practice slowly.
(b) Look around, noticing five things you can see. Label them briefly.
(c) Notice five things you can hear, and label them.
(d) Notice five things you can feel in contact with your body. For example your watch against your wrist, the warmth of your hands, your feet inside your shoes, the chair beneath and behind you.
(e) Now do this all at the same time, shining the light of your attention on the whole scene that you are experiencing.
6. Plant your feet
Bare feet in thick soft grass works best for this one! Still, this isn’t essential.
(a) Plant your feet into the ground. (If you want to, imagine that they are growing roots down deep into the earth, like trees. Notice how, just like trees, with deep roots you can be more flexible. You can adapt and respond to any circumstances or emotions that might sway you.
(b) Push your feet down, and notice the surface beneath you, supporting you. Notice your feet inside your shoes, if you are wearing them. Wriggle your toes.
(c) Gently observe the muscle tension in your legs as you push your feet down.
(d) And notice that there’s your entire body, standing steadily. You have a spine holding you upright, and gravity holding you. There is softness and kindness there too, in the softness of your tummy and front.
(e) Notice the feeling of gravity flowing down your head, and your spine, and your legs, into your feet. If you want to, you can extend the image into feeling your deeper connection with mother earth: you are a part of the planet, and she is holding you.
(f) Now look around, take a few slow breaths. Notice what you can see and hear around you.
7. Super-charge your practice by adding in compassion
You can build compassion into grounding techniques in many different ways. Here are a few:
(a) Bring to mind the face of someone who loves you unconditionally. This might be a friend or family member, the face of a beloved pet, or a person from history or religion who embodies kindness for you.
As you slow your breath, look into their eyes, allowing in the love and light that they are beaming towards you.
(b) If you have a faith tradition, pair the breath with words that are calming for you. For example, if you are Christian, on the in-breath you might quietly say in your mind, “Christ,” and on the out breath, “ have mercy”.
(c) Imagine your breath as having a colour (eg soft pink, emerald green or silver-purple). As you slow the breath, visualise it moving into and around your suffering. While you do this you could say to yourself, “I don’t like this feeling, but I can allow it to be there. It needn’t be the enemy”. Or simply, “let it be”.
(d) Add in a prayer, or a wish, for others or yourself. You could speak this out loud, or say it quietly in your mind as you breathe deliberately and slowly. An example is “May you experience joy; may you be healthy; may you know peace; may you feel love”.
(e) Kelly McGonigal speaks here about another technique she calls “heart breathing”, which I will leave you to try – I am not there yet myself!
A few extra tips
Practice often, even if you’re feeling okay
I recommend practising a mix of these exercises a few times every day, even if you’re feeling relatively okay. When big emotions come rolling in, then you will have the techniques at your finger tips.
Remembering to practice
The hardest part of doing these practices can be remembering to do them. These two tips may help:
- Post-it note reminders: place these strategically, for example on your car’s dashboard and your bathroom mirror. Perhaps move the notes around from time to time, or you will stop “seeing” them;
- “If – then” thinking: this is where you pair the practice with other daily activities. So you might set the intention, “If I am stopped at a red traffic light, then I will practice slowing my breathing”. Other ideas might be to practice while waiting in line at the shops, or for the kettle to boil, tea to brew or the toaster to pop.
Experiment, and see which techniques are helpful for you
Notice what works for you, and what doesn’t, and in which contexts.
Be careful of how you define what “works”
It’s worth saying again, that the aim of these techniques is not to get rid of the uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. They may continue to swirl around, and make their presence be felt.
But they will no longer push you around. The You that is now in the driver seat can decide what to do next, in line with your values and who you want to be. This little video shows how this works.
“I wish you a kinder sea” – attributed to Emily Dickinson
PS you may like to read this post as well, about stepping back from your thoughts, much as you might do when you watch a waterfall.