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Meditate | Wellbeing

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This Deep Breathing Technique

By The Yoga School | September 25, 2018

Have you ever felt like you’re drowning under your work load, or been so overcome by problems in life that the mountain before you seems unsurmountable?

When we feel stressed, confused and overwhelmed. Our brain fogs up, clouding our ability to see things clearly. We feel trapped in a state of emotional paralysis, unable to cope with the circumstances at hand.

This state of intense emotion can affect a person’s ability to function rationally. Describing it as “feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion”, psychologist Marla Deibler, Director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, says, “When we think a stressor is too great for us to manage, we feel overwhelmed.”

What causes overwhelm?

“The possibilities are endless,” says Marla, “And it varies by individual. Overwhelm can peak from a long to-do list we can’t seem to finish, or an emotional event like a birth or death.”

It’s not all that uncommon to feel overwhelmed trying to tackle everyday challenges. At times, it feels like life complicates things further by throwing lemons at us. Some days, we go with the flow. Other times, we feel like we’re struggling to breathe as we get caught in the undercurrents.

The feeling of overwhelm often churns up an “it’s-all-out-of-control” mentality. This train of thought is futile and accentuates the feeling of being suffocated by life’s demands and obligations. Anxiety and worry over dire possibilities in the future, are also contributing factors.

A lot of the time, the pain is worse in our head
because of our internal dialogue…

… says Adeline Tien, a Restorative Yoga teacher who holds space in her classes at The Yoga School for students to rest and recuperate. Deeply calming for the mind, Restorative Yoga is a healing practice which uses props to allow poses to be held longer, giving practitioners the benefits of deep, passive stretching.

Because Restorative Yoga relaxes the mind, it helps relieve anxiety. “Restorative Yoga takes us away from the stories that we always tell ourselves… stories like ‘I’m not good enough, I’m a wreck, I’ve got back pain’ and all these other issues…” she explains.

But external circumstances aren’t always solely responsible for the negative feelings inside us. Rather, unresolved emotions are the cause of much of the suffering. “We keep ourselves in constant agony with the stories that loop in our head,” Adeline points out.

“As a teacher, my role is to guide my students to go a little deeper… I support them with a safe space for introspection, allowing them to explore their thoughts and shed light on where they are. Sometimes, that opportunity to stop and take stock of things is what allows people to consider different perspectives to their stories.”

It’s all in the breath…

Whatever the reason behind overwhelm, there’s one constant that we can always take reference from as long as we’re living and breathing – breath. “Your breathing is a great barometer of the shifting weather of your thoughts and feelings, and can be an incredibly versatile tool to intentionally calm your nervous system, develop focus and attention, and deepen your connection to your body,” says Jamie Price, wellness expert and Founder of the meditation app, Stop, Breathe & Think.

Feeling overwhelmed may not be an intentional choice. But we can consciously choose to become more aware of our emotions and how to manage them.

“Life is constantly in a cycle,” says Adeline, “And breathing is exercise for your lungs and diaphragm.” Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body. It brings your awareness away from the worries in your head and quietens your mind.

Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. “Your inhales are always balanced out by your exhales,” Adeline explains.

“Inhales activate your sympathetic nervous system, which activates your stressed state. Notice that when someone is stressed, they take in sharp breaths? That actually worsens your stress levels because you’re activating the fight or flight syndrome,” she highlights. “Exhales on the other hand, activate your para-sympathetic nervous system and that’s when you get things like rest and digest, and healing. It’s like a ‘switch’ that lets you turn stress on and off.”

“You need to turn off that switch,” she continues. “Very few people have long exhales. Longer, slower, conscious exhales are what turn off that switch.”

Try this simple but powerful technique:

Experts say that slow, deep breathing can trigger a relaxation response that slows the heart and reduces stress. Adeline advises against taking deep breaths when feeling nervous or overwhelmed. “Instead, take a long exhale!” she reminds. Here’s what she recommends:

  • Find a comfortable posture and keep a straight back (you can sit, stand, or lay down). Keeping your spine straight helps your breathing to be more relaxed and natural, enabling you to use your full lung capacity.
  • Let your hands be your guide. Place one hand on your belly, and the other on your chest. Wherever you place your hands is where attention will be drawn to.
  • Count your breath as you inhale slowly through your nose, and gently push your belly out. Start with three counts in.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth as you gently pull your belly back in. Make your exhale slightly longer with six counts.
  • Continue for three to five minutes, or until the feeling of overwhelm passes.
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