Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Exercising my breath

NOTE: Although this post is titled July 27th, it is actually one I wrote on May 27th after I had actually practiced deep breathing exercises for a week. I had saved it as a draft and now remembered to publish it.
It has been over a week since I began my experiments with deep breathing. With the exception of Monday I have been consistently practicing every day. I admit it can be hard to justify the 10 minutes. What does that say about my ingrained views on relaxation? After all, if I hadn't made relaxing a concrete goal for myself (i.e. an objective measure of productivity), would I have even done it at all?

Probably not.

Many people feel like they should be able to "handle" everything. I don't need help, I don't need to relax, I can cope, I can keep going. While I would say positive self-talk and self-motivation are two very admirable, adaptive, and healthy qualities, sometimes people can deny themselves the help they need under the facade of "being strong." From my standpoint, knowing when to engage in self-care and doing so in a healthy, productive way IS strong.

I say all this because there is the assumption that relaxing is a waste of time. Even as I commited myself every day to doing so, automatic thoughts of skepticism and doubt set in. How can I make this a habit if I'm still trying to convince myself it really works?

In order to address these feelings, on some of the days I recorded my automatic thoughts and my stress levels pre and post relaxation (on a scale of 1-10). I noticed that my subjective report of stress lowered an average of 2 points after the relaxation exercises (e.g. from a 5/10 to a 3/10). Perhaps there were other benefits during the day that I did not even notice. Perhaps I was more calm overall, and better able to handle the stress of the day. It's hard to tell what kind of lasting effects my relaxation might be having at this point in time but here are some things I have noticed immediately following a 10 minute deep breathing relaxation session:

1. Slightly decreased stress levels
2. Decreased heart rate
3. More awareness of how I'm feeling (e.g. anxious, stressed, irritated)
4. Feeling more calm and rejuvenated afterwards
5. Greater mental clarity
6. More positive thoughts about myself and the world

Some normal challenges one might experience with relaxation:

1. Feeling like it's a waste of time
2. Being skeptical about whether it will really "work"
3. Trying to push away feelings rather then just let them be, or pass on their own
4. Having difficulty quieting the mind; racing thoughts
5. Feeling unable to relax
6. Being distracted and not focusing on the deep breathing
7. Feeling uncomfortable with the deep breathing
8. And in some cases, trying to relax can provoke intense anxiety (if you have severe anxiety problems)

Just because you experience some of these challenges does not mean that you are doing something wrong: it's normal!! Relaxation, mindfulness, deep breathing, and meditation all take practice. The key is to try to let your feelings be, rather than to fight them. Accept how you feel but don't preoccupy yourself with it. With such a practice, you will be on your way to more mindful living and greater management of your fluctuating emotions.

I recognize that this is easier said than done. Even if you are unable to set aside time each day to engage in a relaxation exercise, you can take with you the spirit and principles of this technique. When you're starting to feel stressed, angry or upset acknowledge your feeling, accept it, let it be, and take a few deep breaths. You might be surprised how quickly the intensity of the emotion fades away and you are on to your next adventure in the day.

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