My first job as a psychologist-in-training was at a psychiatric clinic where I worked under the supervision of the lead psychiatrist. On reflection, this experience was significantly informative in my career as a psychologist – and as a person.
There were many learnings to be had during those years, and many stories I keep in my memory bank that I’ve drawn on over the years in workshops and with clients, that have been helpful in normalising experiences. For example, learning that recovery from psychological distress or a mental illness is not linear – there will be good days and bad days but overall improvement occurs over time. However, if you believe that each day forward should be better than the one before, then there will undoubtedly be frustration and disappointment on the not-so-good days.
By far, the most powerful skill I learned was how to breathe well. Of course, we all know how to breathe, its automatic, it’s a function of our autonomic nervous system. We don’t even need to think about it – but that’s where the problem lies. We’re unconscious most of the time, to how we’re breathing.
The psychiatrist I worked with was a great mentor and supervisor (huge thanks to you Dr Gordon Davies). For my first year, he eased me into the experience of working with clients, many of whom suffered with significant psychiatric disorders and associated emotional distress. He taught me the science and practice of the relaxation response to assist his clients suffering with severe anxiety disorders in particular. The relaxation response is a term coined by Dr Herbert Benson, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. Benson famously wrote a book by the same name and in a 1986 US national survey, reported in the New York Times, “The Relaxation Response” was the number one self-help book that clinical psychologists recommended to their patients – I know I certainly did!
The relaxation response is a term coined by Dr Herbert Benson, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.
The relaxation response has been defined in various way including “the use of good breathing techniques, active muscle relaxation and meditation as a means of lowering blood pressure and reducing internal and external stress” or “your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain”. The relaxation response counteracts the toxic effects of chronic stress and anxiety by slowing breathing rate, relaxing muscles, and reducing blood pressure.
Benson suggested there are many pathways to experience the relaxation response. For example, visualisation, muscle relaxation, massage, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, yoga and different breathing techniques. Benson writes in his book, “We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom” – acknowledging that these types of techniques have been used in most cultures and religions for centuries”.
“We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom” – acknowledging that these types of techniques have been used in most cultures and religions for centuries” (Herbert Benson, 1975)
The psychiatrist I worked with taught me both the techniques of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and diaphragmatic breathing or what’s also known as abdominal breathing or “belly breathing”. This type of breathing involves fully engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm when breathing. This means actively pulling the diaphragm down with each inward breath, helping the lungs fill more efficiently. Diaphragmatic breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilise blood pressure and it’s is a key technique in helping reduce stress and anxiety.
During the time I spent at the psychiatric clinic, I found that learning and then teaching these techniques, had a significant effect on my own anxiety and general wellbeing. In fact, it was during this time that I realised that I had spent most of my life up until then experiencing many symptoms of anxiety! It seems I had just learned to live with it – primarily through avoidance of activities that took me out of my comfort zone. The problem with avoidance though is that you’re never really growing and you’re not fully living. Avoidance is a successful activity that solves the issue (the anxiety) in the short term, but you never really learn to manage your anxiety and “feel the fear and do it anyway” – as Susan Jeffers famously said.
The problem with avoidance is that you’re never really growing and you’re not fully living…
I spent nearly two years teaching these breathing and relaxation skills to clients with a range of anxiety disorders and discovered that these breathing techniques were powerful in terms of reducing stress and anxiety, and over time, in addressing the broader psychological disorder. In fact, I learned that applying diaphragmatic breathing techniques at the first physiological signs of panic can prevent a full blown panic attack from occurring. I was also able to use the techniques for myself as I progressed through my studies and career and with each new experience where I applied my breathing techniques, I learned that I could sit with the discomfort and still move towards my valued goals and dreams.
There’s a saying that goes “you teach best what you most need to learn” and learning these techniques has been transformational for me and my life’s journey – particularly in regard to my career. Each time I’ve been out my comfort zone – and there have been many times – particularly as a public speaker, where I’ve felt anxiety emerge, I’ve been able to apply the breathing techniques – to not completely rid myself of the symptoms of anxiety, but to reduce them, and to be able to sit more comfortably with the fear,
I’ve recently returned from a week at Gwinganna health retreat where I had an opportunity to reflect again on my own experiences of anxiety and the power of breathing. At the retreat I practiced a variety of breathing techniques including Qigong, Yoga and “box breathing” – a form of abdominal breathing. One of my commitments to change upon departure was a return to more conscious breathing and the regular use of “box breathing” as part of my daily routine. Two things occurred for me at the retreat that caused this commitment to occur. Firstly, I read the currently popular international bestselling book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” by James Nestor. Secondly, I consulted with a health practitioner at the retreat who taught me the technique of “box breathing” (thanks Matt!).
What I learned from the book is that approximately 40% of us are mouth breathers (however a quick search suggests that statistics vary). In fact, the health practitioner who I consulted with took one look at me and said “you’re a mouth breather” and enquired “do you sleep on your side, hugging a pillow” – to which I replied “yes!”. The book emphasises the importance of breathing through your nose and the use of diaphragmatic breathing exercises to re-learn how to breathe well. The book is a great read with many angles on the art of breathing – with the suggestion that there are as many ways to breathe as there are to eat – and like food – not all are good for you eg mouth breathing.
Whilst I learned early on in my life that conscious breathing techniques like diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety, I’ve also realised that the sore neck and shoulders I’ve been experiencing for the past 12 months, is not solely due to an extended time at the laptop while working from home, but due to the fact that I haven’t been fully breathing and have been holding significant muscular tension in those areas. This is an important lesson for those that might not think they have anxiety but yet have various aches and pains – which is often related to the muscular tension we hold when we’re stressed or anxious and not breathing properly.
There are many psychological techniques I’ve learned over the years but I can say without a doubt that diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most powerful and portable techniques I’ve used both personally and with clients (clinical, counselling and coaching clients). Not only does it assist those suffering with clinically significant anxiety disorders, but it helps all of us to better manage our stress, which most people seem to be experiencing right now in some way or another, whether that’s COVID related or not.
I can say without a doubt that diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most powerful and portable techniques I’ve used both personally and with clients (clinical, counselling and coaching clients).
In addition, and I think possibly even more importantly, it helps us to learn to sit with the discomfort as we step out of our comfort zones, challenge ourselves and really live a full life. As famous Humanistic Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, said – “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety”. Here’s to taking a deep breath and choosing growth.
If you’d like a handout on diaphragmatic breathing and/or progressive muscle relaxation or to learn more about our new digital workplace wellbeing solution “POTENTIAL+“, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.