The Self-Soothing Series – Diaphragmatic Breathing

How to practice diaphragmatic breathing

What is Self-Soothing?

The practise of self- soothing is about using strategies to soothe and calm yourself when you become emotionally charged. As humans, we all have a window of tolerance or capacity to deal with life situations. Some things can trigger us to become so dysregulated, we go beyond our window of tolerance. This can cause us to feel either extremely emotionally charged or numb like we don’t have any feelings at all. Through the Self-Soothing Series, I’ll be sharing tools and strategies to support you when you become hyper-aroused and start to feel extreme panic, terror or fear.

Who Needs to Self-Soothe?

If you’ve had a relatively stable life with healthy attachments to primary caregivers and other people, it’s likely you’ll have more capacity to deal with difficult life situations (or, in other words, a bigger window of tolerance). People who have a narrow window of tolerance, and therefore become very dysregulated, very quickly, are more likely to have experienced a lot of adversity in their life. At the same time, they may not have been taught ways to calm and self soothe.

Nowadays, we understand that children need to be taught how to manage their feelings by those around them. When I was a child, it wasn’t common practice for parents to sit down with their children when they were dysregulated and explain what those feelings were and what they meant. Our feelings were rarely validated and supported, and in most cases our parents couldn’t model this behaviour in relation to their own big feelings either.

If you weren’t shown how to manage big feelings when you were younger, it makes sense that you would find it challenging to do so as an adult. The good news is, it’s never too late to learn. There are plenty of tools and strategies you can practice to calm and regulate yourself when you become hyper (or hypo) aroused and your window of tolerance is tested.

What is Diaphragmatic Breathing and How Can It Help?

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is one of the quickest ways to feel calmer. Breathing deeply from the diaphragm rather than the chest relaxes the body and reduces anxiety by helping you avoid the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stressful situations. Usually, in these situations, your body’s automatic systems are on high alert, signaling your heart to beat faster and breathing rate to increase. By consciously becoming aware of your breathing and regulating its depth and rate, the likelihood of spiraling into a panic or anxiety attack is lowered. Although we are all capable of breathing this way, very few of us do so in our everyday lives.

How to Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing

Note: If you live with a medical condition, consult with your doctor prior to beginning any type of relaxation training exercise.

It’s best to practice this breathing pattern while you are in a relaxed and safe environment at home. This way, you will be more likely to use this technique when faced with situations that trigger issues with anxiety.

  1. Find a quiet place free of distractions. Lie on the floor or recline in a chair, loosen any tight clothing and remove glasses.
  2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach. Inhale, taking a deep breath from your abdomen as you count slowly to three. As you inhale you should feel your stomach rise up. The hand on your chest should not move. This may take some time to get used to because we are so used to breathing from our chest, rather than our abdomen.
  3.  After a short pause, slowly exhale, ensuring that your out-breath is longer than your in-breath. Your stomach should fall back down as you exhale. If you wish, you can say a word or phrase as you exhale such as ‘calm’.
  4. Continue this pattern of rhythmic breathing for five to ten minutes until you feel relaxed.

Useful Links

Anxiety in the Body

The Inner Child Explained

What is Reparenting and Where Do I Start?

Understanding ‘Mum Rage’

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