Illustration: Matija Medved

One Day at a Time

An Easy Breathing Exercise for When Worry Takes Over

Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

Elemental
Published in
5 min readApr 23, 2020

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When you’re anxious, one of the best things to do is slow down and focus on your breath. But what about when you’re so anxious or stressed that regular breathing exercises don’t seem to work?

In today’s column, I’ll teach you a simple but effective exercise that brings in more of your senses to help cut through the anxiety so you can access more calm and focus in the present moment.

In previous columns, I’ve suggested that people try taking a few mindful breaths, or grounding themselves by bringing awareness to their feet when they feel stress or anxiety. The feet are a great focal point to keep you in the present moment, because our feet aren’t the place where we feel or hold anxiety. When we’re stressed or anxious, accompanying sensations show up in our chest, shoulders, jaw, and even the muscles around our eyes. Yet, if you’re really stressed or anxious, even paying attention to your feet can be a bit challenging. Let’s talk about why, and then I’ll show you a short breathing exercise that is especially good for kids and can also help adults stay grounded.

First, let’s look at the science.

There’s a part of your prefrontal cortex (the thinking and planning part of your brain) called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or dlPFC for short. It is toward the front and to the side of your brain. The dlPFC has been shown to be important for working memory, the part of short-term memory associated with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing. Basically, it holds information for you to use right now. For example, you rely on it when someone tells you a phone number, and you repeat it to yourself as you prepare to dial, or when you take mental note of the few items you need to pick up at the grocery store in the next few minutes.

If you’re really worried about something, that worry thinking takes up space so that it is harder to remember your grocery list, or what someone just…

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Jud Brewer MD PhD
Elemental

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. www.drjud.com. @judbrewer