diaphragmatic breathing

Relaxation Part 1: Stopping the Runaway Train

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

Relaxation is an important and often overlooked skill that is helpful in dealing with anxiety, stress, and anger.

I could barely see straight as I grunted out some breaths. My friend had tackled me and pulled me aside in an effort to stop me. I remember being so overwhelmed with anger I was crying, hyperventilating, and scraping bark off the tree next to me with my fingernails. I was maybe 12 years old, and I had lost it in the middle of a pickup football game.

I looked crazy to my friends. I felt crazy to myself. But, the anger I was feeling was not crazy, and the rejection and humiliation underneath that anger was very, very real. One of the other boys, I’ll call him Jimmy, had been picking on me and suggesting I was cheating. In my escalating anger I blitzed him, and Jimmy threw the football as hard as he could at my face. In that moment, my interpretation of what was going on fueled a neurochemical takeover of my body – it felt like I could see what I was doing, was horrified by it, but could not stop this stranger I found myself inhabiting from pummeling Jimmy into the ground.

There are real reasons why my body felt this way that will be the fodder for another blog. There are also real reasons why this moment, though seemingly small, triggered an enormous amount of rejection and anger that – though valid – did not entirely come from the situation at hand. But, the question today is, what do we do when we find ourselves in a similar spot? Though it won’t treat the roots of these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, how can we at least slow down the runaway train and function in a healthier way?

One of the first tools in slowing down the runaway train is slowing down period.

It sounds silly. Or obvious. But, an incredible difference can be had if in these moments we can learn to slow our bodies down. One way we can do this is by learning and practicing breathing exercises designed to relax your body.

You’ve probably heard someone say to you or others before, “Now, just take some deep breaths!” In the moment, you might have found yourself wanting to pummel them, too! Our emotions can be big and feel overpowering in the moment, which is often why it feels impossible to stop. This is why it is so important for us to regularly practice things like relaxation breathing when we are not entirely overwhelmed – so that it becomes more and more natural.

So, right now, why don’t you take a minute wherever you are – literally take 60 seconds to try this. Find a quiet place or some headphones (check out Calm.com for soothing background noise), sit comfortably, with your back straight, your feet flat on the ground. You can have your hands in your lap, or on your thighs. Set an alarm for 1 minute, close your eyes, and begin with some deep breaths – breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. These breaths should be nice and slow, and from your gut not your chest – act like your belly is a balloon and you are trying to inflate it and deflate it. In – and out. In – and out. Practice just focusing on your breathing, slowly, consistently, from your diaphragm.

Once your minute is up, take stock in how you feel. What does this moment feel like, versus the moments you were reading this blog just before? Try this exercise every day for a week when you get home from work. What do you notice? Then, maybe try it as you notice some situations that activate some mild emotion.

As you gradually practice this breathing with increasingly challenging moments, you will find this tool is actually an available choice to you when your body tries to take you over with the runaway train.

It really works! It doesn’t answer the questions of why we are feeling and thinking these things to begin with – these questions need answers and healing if we want to live as whole people. But, it does help us survive the runaway train with less damage to ourselves and others. If you want some help, some more tools, or to delve more deeply into the roots behind these thoughts and emotions, send me an email or give me a call. I’d be glad to join you on this journey to take back control and discover who you really are.