First Principles: Breathing techniques for relaxation
One of the first things I do with most clients is to teach them relaxation techniques; most often breathing techniques for relaxation. It sounds a bit new-agey, but I assure you, the science is valid. The way I see it, most of my clients choose to work with me because they want to get from a to b as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you’re stressed, you’re not going to be in an optimal state of mind to engage with the therapeutic process and everything we do is going to take a lot longer and possibly be a lot more painful.
Think about it this way, our nervous system hums along quietly in the background of our awareness, controlling our body functions without us having to consciously think about them, which frees up our minds to deal with other stuff like why Monday’s suck so much and how cool it would be to time travel. Our nervous system and our mind are connected and feed information to each other, so we know if there’s time for us to be pondering life’s big questions, or if it’s time to be alert and not get mowed down by crazed rush hour traffic.
This feedback loop means that our thoughts can cause huge physical effects in the body (like panic attacks) and also that the body or nervous system can hijack our thoughts and convince us that there’s something to get anxious about, even when there’s really not.
A way of conceptualising the nervous system is as a two-part, interlinked system. The more aroused the system is (higher stress levels), the more the body is in a sympathetic state where it’s ready to fight or run; when the body is signaling that all is calm and it’s safe to rest, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in aiding digestion and repair of the body’s organs and muscles.
In our first appointment…
Often when a client first comes to see me, they’re pretty stressed out or anxious. Even if that’s not why they’re coming, it’s confronting and possibly a bit scary to be telling all your ‘stuff’ to someone you don’t know. Even if you are doing it in the hopes that it’ll solve the problem…
I say it all the time, but the best predictor of a successful therapy outcome is how much a client likes and connects with their therapist. If you like someone, you’re more likely to listen to what they say, you’ll have greater confidence in their abilities and you’ll relax while you’re around them, giving yourself a much-needed break from whatever it is that’s brought you into the therapy room.
So, often one of the first things I do with a new client is talking to them about simple tips and tricks they can use to trigger that feedback loop between body and mind, calming everything down, bringing some space and perspective, allowing them to access their resources and feel safe enough to start building that therapeutic working relationship.
One of the ways that I do this is by teaching them to activate their vagus nerve. There’s a lot of research emerging about the importance of the vagus nerve and anxiety, trauma and chronic health conditions. Activating the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming our nervous system. The nerve can be activated in a few different ways, including deep breathing, stretching, and singing. Sadly, my singing voice is not conducive to a restful therapeutic environment, so I usually use stretching and breathing!
Breathing techniques for relaxation
When someone begins to breathe slowly, deeply, and evenly they automatically lower their heart rate and flood their organs with oxygen. The physical process of deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which wanders from the sides of the face through the ribcage and diaphragm, releasing endorphins and cutting stress hormones. There are a variety of different breathing techniques for relaxation that I can teach, many of them based on pranayama techniques from yoga.
Within a few minutes’ clients report that stress and anxiety levels drop from and 8-9 to a 2-3. They say that they can think more clearly, view their issues with a greater perspective, and access resources more effectively. It also gives them a quick win, learning to change their state so profoundly in just a few minutes serves as a powerful reminder that change really can be quick and easy. It’s just about knowing the right tools. By regularly practising the tools they learn in therapy sessions, clients can start to make powerful changes, enabling them to approach stressful or anxiety-provoking situations in a completely different way.