We no longer know how to truly relax.
Our frantic, stuffed schedules and fast-paced lives make it difficult for us to wind down and simply be with ourselves.
We have mastered how to DO, but we know almost nothing about how to BE.
Even when we do find ourselves with nothing to do, we freak out. Our social conditioning has ingrained within us the belief that we have to be “productive members of society” no matter where we are or what we’re doing.
Productivity is the catchword of our century. There’s nothing innately wrong with productivity. But while we have physically and materially progressed immensely, we are internally impoverished and starving. Most people have made almost no internal progress whatsoever, leaving them feeling anxious, depressed, and more prone to addiction.
The truth is that it is very difficult for us to be quiet and still with ourselves. We can no longer sit in a room without reaching for our iPhone, checking our social media accounts or flicking on the TV. We have an obsessive, addictive need to fill all of our empty moments with searching, reading, buying, watching, and being entertained in some way.
With such racing minds, it’s no wonder that we struggle with pandemic levels of insomnia, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, stress-related illnesses, and anxiety disorders.
But there is hope.
My Struggle With Anxiety … and the Only Thing That Helped
I have struggled with anxiety since I was a teenager, but it got particularly bad when I entered my early twenties.
As a highly sensitive empathic person, I often struggle to adjust to this modern world. I have strong physical reactions to artificial lighting, harsh smells, loud sounds, uncomfortable textures, EMF frequencies, and of course, the energy emitted by others. I very easily pick up on and internalize the energy transmitted by other people, making life oftentimes overwhelming.
Having a finely tuned nervous system means that I am prone to experiencing social anxiety and generalized anxiety. In fact, at one point my anxiety got so bad that I was having panic attacks multiple times a week. This intense anxiety led me to quit multiple jobs as they were too much for me to handle. The physical tension I experienced in my neck and shoulders also became unbearable to carry around.
Through the years I have tried almost every “trick and technique” for anxiety available. I have tried numerous pharmaceutical drugs (SSRI’s), NLP, visualization, vitamin supplements, herbal remedies, PMR, diet changes, exercise, yoga, affirmations, and various forms of cognitive reprogramming. I have also read many books on anxiety. While some of these things helped, others were not very helpful.
Through all of my journeys, I’ve discovered over and over again that one single, simple practice has helped me to relax more than any other.
This practice is mindful breathing.
At first, this practice doesn’t sound like much. Maybe it sounds too straightforward or simplistic (I know that for me it did). “Mindful breathing?” you might think, “There’s got to be more to this than just breathing.” But that’s the problem: we believe that we have to practice some kind of fancy, elaborate technique in order to feel better. But we don’t.
In fact, the very belief that overcoming anxiety and tension is a “complicated” process is another source of anxiety! Why does letting go of anxiety have to be a complex process?
How to Relax By Practicing Mindful Breathing
As the old truism goes, “The best things in life are free,” and the best thing about mindful breathing is that it is completely and utterly free. You don’t need to buy a book or sign up to a program to practice mindful breathing (unless you really want to).
Breathing is so natural, so effortless, that we take it for granted. When we experience anxiety, stress or tension, the last thing we think about is our breathing.
The thing about breathing is that it is always rooted in the here and now, the present moment. We are so lost in our busy, agitated, and delirious thoughts about the past or future, that we rarely inhabit this present moment. Mindful breathing anchors you back into the present moment so that your mind can rest, relax and become grounded again in reality.
By focusing on your breath, your mind will very quickly relax, followed by your body and any tension you’re physically experiencing. The wonderful thing about mindful breathing is that it can literally be practiced in any moment of the day, no matter what you’re doing, who you’re speaking with, or where you are.
There are no elaborate rituals or processes involved with mindful breathing, and that is what makes it so relaxing. You don’t have to worry about getting it right! There are no steps to even follow! Breathing comes so naturally and effortlessly to you that you do it unconsciously.
If you want to learn how to relax, you need to practice mindful breathing. It’s as simple as that. You’re welcome to try other techniques to complement mindful breathing but experiment with making mindful breathing your focus and priority. There is no other technique I have discovered that is free, simple, easy, effortless, and constantly grounded in the present moment like mindful breathing.
“What about meditation?” you ask. Well here’s the thing, mindful breathing is meditation. When you concentrate on your breathing, on the in-breath and out-breath, you are practicing meditation. You are emptying your mind. You are becoming aware. You are truly experiencing life. Mindful breathing and meditation are one and the same thing.
Although mindful breathing is a very simple practice, you will benefit from a few tips:
- Don’t force your breath. Forcing yourself to breathe deeply can often increase your anxiety. Instead, try to simply concentrate on your breath, even if it’s shallow. Mindful breathing requires you to develop the powers of concentration and focus. As you concentrate gently on your breath, you will gradually find your breath deepening and slowing by itself.
- Allow your breath to be fast, shallow or inconsistent. When you first come to concentrate on your breath, you may find that it is fast, shallow or inconsistent. Allow yourself to breathe in this way. Don’t try to force change because you will create tension. Allow yourself to breathe completely unhindered, but pay attention and be mindful of your breathing.
- Understand your tendency to be judgmental. It’s important that you approach mindful breathing with a very gentle mindset. Instead of wanting to aggressively “master it” or be a “deep breathing Zen master,” give yourself the permission to breathe in whatever way comes naturally to you. The more you demand from yourself, the more stressed out you will be. Instead of being a relaxing practice, deep breathing will become another source of anxiety! Be wary of falling into this trap. Ensure that you are gentle and permissive with yourself.
- Be patient. Mindful breathing is an art. It’s OK if you forget about it for a while. Whenever you notice that you have returned to your frantic thoughts, return back to your breath.
- How does your in-breath and out-breath feel? Sometimes it helps to pay attention to how your in-breath and out-breath feels in your body. Notice your stomach and how it moves. Notice your throat and how it feels. Notice the sensation in your nostrils as you breathe in air.
- Gentle words. Sometimes (only sometimes) it helps to accompany the in-breath and out-breath with gentle words. You can say these words silently or mentally to yourself to anchor you to the present moment. For example, you might like to say, “Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I relax” or a mantra such as “I breathe in, I breathe out.”
- Dedicate time each day. While mindful breathing doesn’t need to become a formal practice, you may benefit from dedicating five or ten minutes every morning practicing it. The most important thing to remember is that mindful breathing is not just a practice you compartmentalize into one period of your day. Instead, mindful breathing needs to be adopted as a daily practice incorporated into your life wherever possible.
- Understand the importance of mindful breathing. Mindful breathing becomes another fad or abandoned practice only when it isn’t understood properly. In order to keep up mindful breathing, you need to understand just how significant and vital it is to you and your life. I can’t make you continue mindfully breathing. Only you, with a sincere understanding of the direness of your situation, can.
What has helped me continue mindful breathing is realizing how destructive my frantic mind tends to be. When my mind is lost in fears and desires, I become agitated, impatient, depressed, fearful, bored, and addicted to things which I believe will make me “happy.” Mindful breathing helps me to slow down and reconnect with the beauty of the present moment. When I am anchored in the here and now, I am able to feel immense wellbeing, relaxation, and joy.
I truly hope this article has given you hope. Please try out mindful breathing for yourself and see how it transforms your life. Read more about mindfulness for extra guidance.
There are many videos and further resources on the internet that can help inspire you. If you want further inspiration, please check out Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “How to Relax.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts or feelings in the comments about how to relax.