Most of us are not breathing properly throughout our days for optimum health and well-being. We have poor posture, we sit at our desks for long periods of time, staring at screens, generally moving very little. This restricts the ability of the lungs to take in oxygen and to release carbon dioxide. The result is an excess of CO2 in our bodies. Not inhaling enough oxygen and failing to exhale enough CO2, can create fatigue, mental fog and decreased tissue function.For bereaved people, grieving causes us to feel like we want to be slumped down, curled up and protecting our hearts. The lungs are unable to expand fully and breathing is even more restricted than normal. Many grieving people, as well as those who deal with chronic anxiety, may notice that the breath is very shallow, or even that you may be holding your breath.
When asked to take a deep breath, many people suck in their stomachs and fill up their chests. This is actually the opposite of deep breathing. This kind of shallow chest breathing also signals the brain and the sympathetic nervous system to maintain a stress response. For a grieving person, this can intensify many of the normal grief reactions that we go through as part of the grief experience. Breathing deeply and fully can be a helpful tool to decrease stress, increase clarity of thought and help to counteract fatigue. Breathing fully and into the diaphragm, rather than shallowly in the chest, signals the brain and the parasympathetic nervous system that it is safe to rest and relax. Breathing this way is the best tool you have to decrease stress and anxiety. And it begins to work almost instantly.
Practicing the following breathing exercises can be very helpful for reducing stress and anxiety, increasing a state of calm and peace, as well as a sense of control over your own body responses. Anytime you notice that you are feeling anxious, particularly tired, or that you are holding your breath, take a moment—right then and there—to breathe. Stop lights make good cues to practice your breathing as well. In addition to helping you notice your breath and serving as reminders to practice your breathing exercises, breathing at stop lights can help to counteract the stress we experience when we are confronted with the stress of the rest of the world—other drivers, traffic jams, errands that must be run—while we are in the midst of stressful lives--whether you are grieving or not. Inside your car, you can create a space of calm and peace simply with your breath.
Additionally, noticing your breath and increasing your use of breathing exercises can also help you to become more mindful of your own thoughts and feelings, imparting a sense of control and stability in an otherwise chaotic time of life. The more you notice how you feel, what your thought patterns are, how your body is affected by your responses to the world around you, your grief experience, your thoughts and feelings, the less out of control you can begin to feel.
This is an exercise in simply noticing your breath. Becoming aware and mindful of your own breath as it moves in and out of your body.
To begin, sit in any comfortable position, on the floor or on a chair, with your spine long and straight but not stiff. If you are in a chair, allow the feet to be flat on the ground, increasing your sense of groundedness.
Find a comfortable position for your hands, either folded gently in your lap, or resting on your thighs or knees—palms up or down, whichever feels right to you.
You may close your eyes if that feels comfortable. If not, find a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you and allow your gaze to soften. As you sit, begin to notice the temperature of the air on your skin, notice any sounds you may hear within or outside the room. Begin to notice your body's weight as it is supported by the chair or the floor. Notice the feel of the floor or the chair under your sitting bones, under your legs. Notice the feel of the floor beneath your feet. Expand your awareness to noticing the sensations of your entire body without feeling the need to change anything, simply notice.
Now, begin to notice and follow the movement of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, as you inhale and exhale. As you inhale, notice the temperature and the vibration of the air as it flows through the nasal passages, down the throat and trachea, on its way to the lungs. Notice the different sensations of the belly, ribs, and chest as they expand. As you exhale, notice the temperature of the air, the movement of the tiny hairs of your nose, the feeling of your lungs empty of air as it leaves your body.
Simply notice these things and any other sensations that occur as you continue to breathe, easily and naturally, in and out.
Simply notice your breath as it moves in and out of your body without the need to change anything at all.
Simple Deep Breathing
Sit in a comfortable position with your hands relaxed, either in your lap or resting on your thighs or knees.
Relax your shoulders. Pull them up toward your ears, then roll them back and down, creating space between your shoulders and your ears. Allow the shoulders to relax.
Breathe normally in and out for a few breaths. Notice how the belly rises and falls easily as you breathe naturally. Your chest should not rise a great deal as you breathe in and out. If you like, you can place a hand on your abdomen to help notice the movement as you breathe in and out.
When you are ready, breathe in—and on the next exhalation, breathe out slowly through the nose, counting to five. During this exhalation, tighten the abdominal muscles, pulling the diaphragm inward, toward the spine, squeezing all the excess air out of your body. When all the air is squeezed out, pause for two counts, and inhale slowly again, to the count of five, allowing your belly to expand as you breathe in. If you feel comfortable making the exhale and the inhale of equal length, begin to try to make the exhalation a bit longer than the inhale. As you practice regularly, this becomes easier to do. Eventually, you will be able to make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.
If you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes and continue to repeat this easy deep breath, 5-10 times.
If you find that your mind wanders during this exercise, don't worry. Simply bring your focus back to your breathing and begin your counts to five once more.
You may find it helpful to think of a happy color (such as yellow or pink) or a calming color (like blue or green) as you breathe in and a dreary color (like grey or tan) as you breathe out.
You might choose to imagine breathing in a calming, pleasant emotion such as peace or love as you inhale and breathing out stress or anxiety as you exhale.
As your awareness of your breath increases, it will become easier to practice your deep breathing without focusing so much of your attention on it.
The Three-Part Breath
The three-part breath is a specific breathing technique used in yoga practices and can be very useful in times of stress or whenever you need to relax. This type of breathing triggers your parasympathetic nervous system or the "relaxation response" and allows your body and mind to more easily release stress and tension.
Practicing the three-part breath before bed can be very helpful with sleep issues—a common problem for bereaved people as well as those who deal with chronic anxiety and stress.
Again, find your comfortable sitting position, allowing your hands to be relaxed. The three-part breath may also be done lying down. Practicing this breath while lying in bed before sleep is a good choice if you have difficulty clearing your mind and falling to sleep.
To begin, inhale normally. Then, with your mouth closed, exhale slowly through the nose as you did with the simple deep breathing exercises, using the abdominal muscles to pull the diaphragm inward. Squeeze all the stale, excess air completely out of your lungs.
As you prepare for the next inhalation, imagine your upper body as a large pitcher. As you inhale, you will fill the pitcher from bottom to top.
First, fill the diaphragm and lower belly, allowing them to expand and completely fill with air.
Next, continue to allow the pitcher to fill as the lower, and then the upper, parts of the ribcage expand outward and up. You will feel the ribcage expand around the back of the body as well. Try not to force this process, simply allow the air to continue to fill the body.
Next, fill the upper lungs, notice the expansion of the chest, the rising of the collar bones and shoulders, as the pitcher is filled completely to the top. Pause for 2 or 3 counts.
Exhale in the opposite way, allowing the pitcher to empty from top to bottom.
As you slowly exhale, the shoulders and collar bones slowly and gently drop, the chest deflates, the ribcage moves inward. Again, using the abdominal muscles, pull the diaphragm inward, using it to completely empty the air from the bottom of the lungs.
Repeat the process, re-filling the pitcher slowly from bottom to top. Continue with the complete and full exhalations and inhalations, emptying and filling the pitcher.
The three parts are bottom, middle, top—expanding as you slowly and completely fill your body with fresh, cell-nourishing, life-giving oxygen and then contracting slowly as you completely empty it of carbon dioxide, toxins, and tension held in the body and mind.
As you increase your practice and the muscle movements become familiar, you may wish to add the counting of your breaths or your color visualizations. Ideally, the exhalations should be about twice as long as the inhalations. Initially, if you count to 5 as you inhale and exhale, gradually try to make your exhalations to count of 6, then 7, then 8, and so on until you feel more comfortable lengthening your exhalations.
If you feel dizzy or lightheaded while practicing the three-part breath, or any other breathing exercise, stopthe practice immediately and allow your breathing to go back to normal. Sometimes if we are not used to a great deal of oxygen, the change can cause lightheadedness or dizziness. Know your own body and be mindful of the changes you notice.