Creating a personalized breathing skill to regulate your anxiety 

Let’s face it, we live in a society that has an issue with chronic productivity. The pressure to move one million miles per hour and constantly produce makes it very difficult for people to slow down. Oftentimes, therapists will recommend breathing techniques to help clients regulate their emotions. Science has proven breath to be a very effective grounding skill, yet, many of us feel too activated to make the time to breathe. It is kind of ironic, we both want to feel less anxious and also don’t want to have to take the time to do something that will make us feel less anxious. I realized for me that when a skill feels more personalized to my needs, I am more likely to remember it, practice it, and use it long-term. Today I will give you steps for creating a personalized breathing skill to regulate your anxiety. 

1. Choose a breath pattern that feels right to you

There are many different ways of breathing. I like to inhale for a count of four, hold my breath in for four, and exhale for a count of six. I notice that exhaling for longer than I inhale is key to regulating my nervous system. Some people do not like the hold, or like to inhale and exhale for the same length of time. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Explore what feels soothing to your system and stick with this pattern when creating a personalized breathing skill to regulate your anxiety.

2. Choose imagery to pair with the breath

Choose an image or memory that elicits the feelings you would like to embody. One that creates a sense of ease. Maybe it’s a peaceful place you have been to, a memory where you experienced joy and love, or an image you create for yourself right now. I find that pairing imagery with breath helps me commit more deeply to the breathing exercise and direct my focus to the present. For example, I recently used the memory of being at a water park to connect with joy and ease. I got creative with inhaling while I imagined walking to the top of a water slide, holding my breath as I waited a few seconds at the top, and then exhaling to slide down and finally exhaling out. This imagery resonated for me not only because of the natural joy and ease it brings into my body, but also because it helped me create and feel the breath pattern of the rise, hold, and fall in my body. 

3. Take time to bring this image or memory to life 

It is important once you choose your image that you really take the time to embody it. Notice what or who you see, what you feel, smell, taste, and hear. Notice the different internal sensations, thoughts, and what you are doing in this image. Let these feelings fill your body as you breathe and radiate through you as you exhale. You can also picture releasing or letting go of what no longer serves you in your peaceful place. Memorize the different aspects of the experience so you can easily access it and resource this in the future. My image from above evokes feelings of joy, the urge to smile, the sensation of the sun on my body, the excitement of going up the slide, and the release and surrendering to the present moment as I slide down the slide and glide over the cool water on my way down. The long gliding motion helps me exhale even longer than I inhale, which is helpful in regulating the nervous system. The long exhale release not only let go of some of the anxiety I was holding but also made space to let my body fill up with joy and ease. 

4. Practice

Practice and repetition are key. Often people try to use breathing only when their distress levels are already high. I encourage clients to practice daily, even if it is just ten breaths or one minute per day, and

even when they are feeling totally fine. Skills need to be drilled if you want them to stick and to be patterned for times when you actually are distressed. You wouldn’t just show up to a competitive game of yours without attending practices, and breathing works the same way. Taking the time to do this during the day can not only help bring down your anxiety, but it can also prevent the build-up of it as the day goes on. 

5. Adapt it 

If this image or skill does not work for you, don’t worry, instead practice being curious as to what about it is not serving you. This non-judgmental stance will help reduce frustration and help you make meaningful changes. Does the image need to be simplified? Do you need to focus on simply counting your breath instead of imagery to be able to get into a rhythm? There is no right or wrong way to do it. Adapt your breathing skill as you need. Getting distracted is normal. If you notice yourself getting distracted try gently guiding your mind back to the memory and the sensations of it. We are not wired to be present, and it is no easy task in today’s society. Be patient. 

6. Find meaningful ways to implement this into your routine

When we force new habits on ourselves they often do not stick. However, when we consider why we want to implement them they often carry more weight. Be intentional about reflecting on why you would like to start using your skill. Start to consider ways and parts of your day that you could picture yourself doing the exercise. Consider parts of the day where you could really benefit from implementing this even if it is just for a few moments. 

When skills are personal or meaningful to us we tend to remember them better and feel more motivated to use them. My hope is this guide can help you develop a skill that will be quick and personalized for your needs. Remember your skill is for you. No one can take your memory or image from you. This is yours to access those desired feelings whenever you need them.

Article was written by Dani Parmacek, LCPC, R-DMT


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