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

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 said a few minutes ago on a conference call.

Have you noticed that it is harder to remember these types of things when you’re stressed or anxious? This may be, in part, due to that memory space being limited. You can think of your dlPFC as being analogous to the random access memory or RAM of your computer. If your computer has a lot of RAM, you can run a bunch of programs at the same time. If it doesn’t have that much RAM, it gets slower as you start to use that space up — signaled by that spinning wheel of “hey, you are overtaxing me right now,” and eventually it crashes if you keep pushing.

Your brain is similar. The dlPFC can only hold so much information in working memory. 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 said a few minutes ago on a conference call. So how can you free up that space, to get your brain working more effectively?

I’ve mentioned before that mindfulness practices can help get your thinking brain back online. But sometimes this can be really challenging. You bring your awareness to your breath or your feet for a few moments, but because your working memory has been filled with worry thoughts, this can feel forced, or not enough to help your mind and body calm down.

So here’s a little trick you can play with to reboot that RAM in your brain. I love this because you can use the excuse of teaching it to your kids and practicing it with them, but it really works for people of all ages. It’s called five finger breathing. Let’s do it together and then I’ll tell you how it works.

Start by placing the index finger of one hand on the outside of the pinky finger on your other hand. As you breathe in, trace up to the tip of your pinky, and as you breathe out, trace down the inside of your pinky. Then on the next inhale, trace up the outside of your ring finger, and on the exhale, trace down the inside of your ring finger. Inhale and trace up the outside of your middle finger. Exhale and trace down the inside of your middle finger. Continue until you’ve traced your entire hand, and then reverse the process as you trace from your thumb back to your pinky. What’s it like to trace even a few fingers? Better than getting caught up in worry?

Five finger breathing is great because it brings several of your senses together at the same time. You watch and feel your fingers while paying attention to your breath. This is not only multisensory, a combination of seeing and feeling, but it requires awareness of multiple locations as well — two of your fingers, one on each hand, and your breath.

Take a moment to express how you’re feeling, “Oh, I’m feeling a little stressed right now.” Then ask for your family’s help.

Doing this requires a lot of your brain’s RAM, perhaps enough that it crowds out those worry thoughts. If you only pay attention to your breath, those worry thoughts can still be pretty loud and occupy the memory space. But if you use up all that RAM with multisensory and multilocation awareness, you might forget what you were worrying about for a moment. And as you do this for a minute or so, you also calm your physiology down, so that if those thoughts come back in, they aren’t as convincing because they don’t have the same emotional tone. Without that arousal, they have less weight behind them, and are easier to let go of, or not react to.

If you have kids, I encourage you to teach them five finger breathing. Then, practice this as a family. You can do this before each meal, before nap time or before bed or other discrete transition points within the day. And if you notice that you’re starting to get worked up sometime during the day, take a moment to express how you’re feeling, “Oh, I’m feeling a little stressed right now.” Then ask for your family’s help, which empowers them — kids especially. “Can you help me calm down by leading me in a five finger breathing?” If you don’t have kids or live alone, no worries. Let your inner child help out and guide yourself.

Let’s finish with a page from the book I’ve been sharing in each column, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse.

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.

“Help” said the horse.

See if you can ask for help when you need it today — from your kids or yourself. See if five finger breathing can help you reset your physiology so that you can keep your working memory working and your thinking brain thinking.

Onward, together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.

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

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