Get more from your breathing exercises

You would be amazed by how many people I see who think they are using deep or relaxed breathing techniques but are actually breathing in a really unhelpful way (until I show them how to do it in a more helpful way, that is)!

There are many variations of breathing exercises and techniques and for the most part, it comes down to personal preference as to which ones you use.

I personally don’t like to count or hold my breath in my breathing exercises, but whatever method you choose, it is helpful to notice where the air is going in your lungs.

When we breathe into the top part of the lungs, we are usually taking in slightly more oxygen than we actually need. We tend to breathe into the top part of the lungs without even knowing it when we are rushing around, talking and busy, and for the most part it doesn’t cause a problem.

However, if we are under stress we may breathe like this for most of the time, even when we are inactive or resting. In its extreme form, over-breathing becomes hyperventilation, which is a key component of anxiety and panic attacks.

If we are aiming for relaxation, the most helpful form of breathing is diaphragmatic or ‘deep belly’ breathing in which the air gets down to the lower part of the lungs. As the lower part of the lungs expand, this flattens out the diaphragm – which is the big sheet of muscle that sits underneath the lungs.

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When breathing from the diaphragm, your belly should move more than your chest.

Here are 3 top tips to get the more out of your breathing exercises and to help promote diaphragmatic (or deep belly) breathing.

 

Tip 1: Take slow steady breaths rather than forced or exaggerated breaths.

If you are taking in a forced, sharp or exaggerated in-breath, the air is probably going into the top part of your chest, rather than down into the lower part of your lungs. This can happen even if you are using the ‘in through the nose and out through the mouth’ style of breathing.

Try it now…

See what I mean?

One way you can try getting the air down to the lower part of your lungs by lying on your back, placing a small cushion or light object onto your tummy and watching it move up and down.

 

Tip 2: Keep an open posture

If you are attempting deep belly breathing, it is helpful to have a relaxed and open posture rather than sitting or lying with crossed arms, legs or a hunched body posture.

Likewise, if you are used to holding your stomach in or wearing clothes that suck you in,  relax those stomach muscles, ditch the Spanx and let it all hang out!

 

Tip 3: Practise when you are feeling calm (particularly if you are new to using breathing exercises)

Breathing exercises are very useful to manage stress but the temptation is to use breathing exercises only in response to stress.

If you are a beginner, the best time to practise is actually when you are already feeling calm. This way, you can get into a relaxed breathing rhythm more easily and naturally and notice how it feels.

Some beginners wait until they feel stressed or anxious, try to practise then feel more stressed that they can’t get their breathing exercise to work!

Relaxed breathing can also help to maintain relaxed state and promote wellbeing, so don’t reserve your breathing exercises purely for times of stress.

 

Want to learn more?

Louise from Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing and Jen from Flourish in Mind are teaming up to deliver a new workshop at Hub 26 (off junction 26 of M62 in West Yorkshire).

At our ‘Workplace Wellbeing that Works!’ workshop you can learn what stress is, how to recognise your stress signature and learn tools to manage stress and promote wellbeing, including breathing exercises.

You can find details and tickets here: Workplace Wellbeing that Works!

We look forward to seeing you there!

Louise & Jen

Just because it feels true, doesn’t make it true

Emotional reasoning is one of the thinking styles we talk about in CBT that can be unhelpful for us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start suggesting that we shouldn’t listen to our emotions or that we should make decisions based on only cold, hard facts.

It is a good idea, however, to catch those times when our emotions are leading us to biased (or just plain old incorrect) conclusions.

Emotional reasoning is a biased way of thinking that causes us to believe something just because it feels true. For example:

Because I feel scared, there must be a threat.

Because I feel worthless, I must be worthless.

Because I feel jealous, there must be something going on.

Because I feel embarrassed, other people must be laughing at me.

Because I feel overwhelmed, I must not be coping.

 

Of course it isn’t so bad if our emotional reasoning is biased in a more positive way, such as:

Because I feel happy, things are going well!

Because I feel in love, they are the most awesome person ever!

Because I feel excited, it is going to be amazing!

 

Balancing up our emotional reasoning

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If you notice that you fall into a more negative form of emotional reasoning, here are some steps you can take to balance it up a bit.

  1. Recognise the emotion and name it.
  2. Recognise the thought or conclusion you are making.
  3. Identify if the thought is a fact or an opinion.
  4.  If it is an opinion (spoiler alert, it almost certainly is) call it out by adding on ‘I am having the thought that…’ or ‘I am having the opinion right now that… because it fits the way I feel.’
  5. Identify the evidence.
  6. Identify if there is an alternative way of thinking about it.

 

For example:

  1. I am feeling overwhelmed.
  2.  The thought I am having is ‘I am not coping’.
  3.  The thought ‘I am not coping’ is an opinion.
  4.  I am having the thought that I am not coping because it fits the way I feel.
  5.  The evidence is that I am meeting my deadlines, I had good feedback from my manager and the project is going well.
  6. Even though it feels difficult, I am coping better than I think.

 

If your workplace could benefit from a wellbeing workshop or relaxation session, check out sessions here: Workplace Sessions
You can find details of public events here.
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The Impact of an Emotionally Demanding Job Role

Every now and then in my role as a psychotherapist, a client will comment with something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how you can listen to people’s problems all day’, or ‘do you ever take your work home with you?’

Perhaps you have had similar comments if you work in an emotionally demanding job role? I could imagine people expressing a similar sentiment towards nurses, teachers, carers, social workers, police officers or any job role involving heavy emotional demands on top of practical demands and more routine day to day tasks of the job.

The truth for me is that sometimes it can be difficult to listen to people in distress all day. When you step back and think about it, it isn’t really a ‘normal’ thing to do with your time!

Nor is it really a ‘normal’ thing to see physical injury and pain all day if you are a nurse working in A&E, or to deal with challenging behaviour all day if you are a police officer or deal with high risk situations all the time if you are a social worker.

The kind of situations you are exposed to on a regular basis when you are in an emotionally demanding role are not common experiences for the majority of people outside your particular profession.

But when emotional demands are a part of your ordinary day to day experience, it can be easy to forget that it isn’t really the norm.

 

A biased view

I remember early on in my career when I was a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with a heavy caseload of people with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I went out one evening to a comedy gig and I was struck by the thought, ‘Wow! Look at all these people who don’t mind crowds!’

It would be easy for me to conclude from my experience at work that everyone has a mental health difficulty and is struggling with anxiety or low mood. Indeed, many people are, but not everyone is!

I can imagine it would be easy to think of most people as being dishonest if you work in the police force, or over-estimating the likelihood of accidents, illness and injuries if you work in healthcare, or any number of other biases we could form, simply through being exposed to similar issues most of the time.

Of course, we can challenge our biases if we recognise them, by taking notice of people, situations or experiences that offer a different perspective. The key thing is recognising your biases in the first place.

 

Losing compassion?

A friend recently told me of an experience with a healthcare professional who made a rather blunt and uncompassionate comment about the prognosis of her health problem. This was a number of years ago and the professional has no doubt forgotten ever having made the comment but it was something that caused a great deal of fear for my friend for many years.

Of course, we are all human and we will all make offhand comments from time to time. Perhaps this professional was simply having a bad day. However, when you encounter the same problem hundreds of times at work, it can be easy to forget that it is perhaps the first time for the person with the problem.

For the clients who come to see me in my role as a psychotherapist, I actively remind myself that their appointments are a really big deal! Particularly at their first appointment; they may have been nervous about it for days.

Of course, you don’t need to have experienced something in order to empathise with it, but I believe that experiencing therapy as the client has been a helpful reminder for me to be more aware of what it is like in the other chair.

The importance of compassion and empathy is not lost on the vast majority of people working in an emotionally demanding role. I would like to hope that for most of us, we do show compassion, most of the time.

But what if we feel like we can’t? What about when the emotional demands become overwhelming or exhausting? If you are finding it increasingly difficult to empathise in your job role, it may be a sign of compassion fatigue.

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Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the negative emotional cost of caring for others – something synonymous with emotionally demanding job roles. Compassion fatigue may look like stress, emotional exhaustion or burnout but it can also include symptoms of secondary trauma.

You can find more information about compassion fatigue from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project here: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html

And a great blog about preventing compassion fatigue from Good Therapy here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167

 

How to reduce the impact of an emotionally demanding role

In my view, one of the key things for us if we are in an emotionally demanding role is to be in touch with our own emotions. If we are avoiding our emotions, numbing out or unable to recognise how we feel it will be more difficult to manage our own emotions in a helpful way.

Self-care is also key. Spending time building our emotional resources, engaging in enjoyable activity, taking breaks, using relaxation and connecting with others is important to maintain your wellbeing when the emotional demands on you are high.

Use grounding techniques throughout the day while you are at work. Grounding is a simple and effective way of re-connecting with the present moment and it doesn’t need to take a lot of time to do, so it can be easy to fit in even on a busy working day.

Allow others to care for you. When you are in a helping role, you can often get used to putting other people’s needs before your own. Maybe you see yourself as the helper and find it difficult to accept help from others? I know this was true for me and it took me a long time to accept that I sometimes need a bit of help too. It may sound silly, but by asking for help I learned that help… actually helps! We are all human and it is OK to seek out help and support. Even if you are usually the helper.

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t simply about letting yourself off the hook. It is about developing an attitude of kindness, wisdom and forgiveness towards yourself. It is about acknowledging that you are human, recognising your needs and developing an attitude of acceptance towards yourself. If you are not used to showing yourself compassion, this can take time and regular practice. You can find some helpful resources to get you started here: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Compassion

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If your workplace involves a high level of emotional demands, you can find out about wellbeing workshops in the Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees areas here:

Workplace Sessions

 

Image Credit: Pixabay

 

You Don’t Work Better Under Pressure

No really! You don’t!

It seems to be such a commonly held belief that pressure improves performance. If you are among the many people who hold this to be true, here is why I think you are performing despite pressure, rather than because of pressure.

When you perceive any threat (such as a looming deadline or negative consequences of under-performing), your body’s fight & flight response is activated.

When you are in this response, your body is geared up for running away from a physical danger or fighting a threat.

Even if you can’t actually run away or fight the threat, your body responds as if you can. This is why we experience physical symptoms of stress, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath and muscle tension. All of these physical changes would be really helpful if you did need to run or fight.

 

The fight & flight response makes it difficult to conentrate

Have you ever been trying very hard to concentrate and the harder you try and the more pressure you put yourself under, the more easily distracted you feel?

This is because we go into scan-mode in order to spot danger and run away from it. This would be very helpful if you were an early human at risk of being eaten by a predator!

What this usually means for us today is that it is very difficult to focus and concentrate on a task when you are feeling under pressure.

As far as your body is concerned, if you start concentrating on something like your laptop, a predator could sneak up on you and eat you!

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The fight & flight response makes it difficult to think straight

Have you ever been in an exam and as soon as you get out of the exam room you think of all the things you should have written about? Or you figure out what you should have said in an interview on the way home in the car?

In the fight & flight response, the body and brain’s resources are diverted to where they are going to be most helpful for getting out of danger. In your body, your blood is diverted away from areas like the digestive system towards the big muscles in your arms and legs.

If you were running away or fighting you need your arms and legs to be functioning at their best – you don’t need to be eating a massive sandwich.

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Just as your resources are diverted in your body, they are also diverted in the brain.

Your brain activity is diverted away from the pre-frontal cortex when you are in the fight & flight response. This area of the brain is where all your higher cognitive function happens such as problem solving, reasoning and planning.  Instead, your brain is more active in the emotion (namely fear) centres of the brain.

As far as your body is concerned, you don’t need to be coming up with the theory of relativity while you are running away any more than you need to be eating a massive sandwich!

It is physically harder to think when you are under pressure!

When the pressure is gone, you can more easily access the pre-frontal cortex again which is why you suddenly remember everything after you have stepped out of the exam or the interview room.

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We tend to misattribute what has worked for us

It is more difficult to perform under pressure but this is not to say that you can’t perform under pressure. So maybe you are thinking:

  • ‘Yeah but I did well in my exams’
  • ‘Yeah but I got the job when I was under pressure in the interview’
  • ‘Yeah but I met the deadline when I needed to’

If you have had success following a time of high pressure and stress, it is easy to view this as cause and effect. But maybe this isn’t actually the case. Maybe you did well despite the pressure rather than because of the pressure.

What if you could have got the same result or better and felt better in the process by taking some of the pressure off?

Can you think of a time when you didn’t care so much and didn’t put yourself under pressure and performed better than you expected to?

 

Relaxation can be a great way to calm the fight & flight response and taking breaks can help you to reduce the pressure you put on yourself.

Why not give it a try and find out if you really do work better under pressure?

If your workplace could benefit from an emotional resource building workshop, check out sessions here: Guided Relaxation & Workshops
You can find details of public events here.
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Building Emotional Resources

(Because sh*t happens)

When you first think of resources you may think about things like time and money. These things are undoubtedly important but I would like to invite you to think about your emotional resources.

If you were going about starting a practical project like building an extension on your house, starting up a small business or even a small project like baking a cake, it would seem very sensible to start by gathering your practical resources.

If you are building an extension, you need plans, building materials, experts to help you, money to pay for it, time to build it.

If you are starting a small business, you will need a product or service, somewhere to work from, insurance, promotional materials, a computer.

If you are making a cake, you need some ingredients, a mixer, a cake tin, an oven, and some time.

Yet people can often expect to be able to meet life’s challenges without investing anything into their emotional resources.

Even in the day-to-day life of working, parenting, caring for someone, being a friend, running a car, maintaining a home, there are bound to be many and varied problems along the way.

 

Just as you need building materials for your extension, you need emotional resources to deal with life!

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How do you know if your emotional resources are lacking?

Feeling drained?
Tired?
Irritable & on edge?
Tearful, fretful, harassed or over-stretched?

If it only takes a small thing to tip you over the edge or if you think you couldn’t possibly cope with one more thing going wrong, this is a sure sign that your emotional resources are depleted.

Even if you are OK, it makes sense to keep you emotional resources topped up and it certainly can’t hurt to have more resources available to you.

 

How can emotional resources help?
Let’s do a quick thought experiment to demonstrate the difference between running on empty and having good emotional resources…

Think for a moment about a time when you have felt really overwhelmed or drained.

  • Really picture yourself in this scene…
  • Notice how you stood or sat
  • What was the expression on your face
  • Notice your tone of your voice
  • How did you feel in your body.
  • Notice what kind of thoughts you would have when you feel this way.

Now imagine your car breaks down.

  1. How would you feel?
  2. What would you think?
  3. How easy or difficult would it feel to sort it out?

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Now contrast this by thinking of a time when you felt confident, on top of things, strong or competent. Picture yourself again:

  • Notice how you stood or sat
  • What was the expression on your face
  • Notice your tone of your voice
  • How did you feel in your body.
  • Notice what kind of thoughts you would have when you feel this way…

Now imagine again that your car breaks down.

  1. How do you feel this time?
  2. What would you think?
  3. How easy or difficult would it feel to sort out?

Which starting point would give you more resilience?

 

And…
When we invest in our emotional resources, it can save you other valuable resources too.

If you can solve a problem without worrying as much about it, you will save the time, effort and energy you would have put into worrying.

When you can think in a more constructive way about a problem, you could save yourself wasted time and effort chasing your tail on ineffective solutions or time spent dwelling about how bad things are or how difficult life is.

Whatever level your emotional resources are now, investing some time into building them is time well spent.
You can’t prevent sh*t from happening but you can build up your ability to cope when it does!

Did you know that Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing offers a Building Emotional Resources Workshop for the workplace?

Check out Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing Guided Relaxation & Workshops

The first step in building emotional resources is noticing and naming your emotions.

You may like: Why I Don’t Like the Terms ‘Stressed’ and ‘Depressed’

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