As someone with anxiety and attention deficit problems, mindfulness and meditation is a challenge. However, there are good physical benefits to the practice and so I’ve tried to find routines and techniques that work with my attention deficit hurdles and not against them.
First of all, let’s talk about why I use my breathing techniques. Everyone’s “why” is different and so I want to explain mine so that if yours doesn’t line up, you’ll see why my routines might not work for you.
I use breathing exercises in two situations. One? General relaxation and focus. This may be at the beginning of my day like some people with use meditation. Or this may be at any down point in my day where I’m trying to avoid a meltdown. I call this: MAINTENANCE BREATHING. I’m not having a spiral or an attack or an episode, I am just trying to keep myself steady. Some days I may sit and do maintenance breathing 3 or 4 times. If I’m paying attention to myself and my schedule and know what triggers I’m going to be experiencing (like election day) then I find time to do it. I should do it at least once a day but who here is perfect?
The second type of breathing I do is what I call CRISIS BREATHING. This is when I’m actively falling down an anxiety spiral. Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m falling too hard to stop and breathe and those are bad days. However, I’ve been getting better over the pandemic to stop before I get to that point. A good example is on the way home from walking my Mom’s dog one day with Nikki in the car I felt myself spiraling and I asked her to just be quiet and let me turn down the music and open the windows and I did my crisis breathing on the drive home. By the time we got home I was functional again.
Before this year I might not have felt the spiral until it was too late, but something about being trapped with your family motivates you to recognized the path of your spirals better so that the people you’re stuck in the house with don’t start to worry about your stability. I had a lot of my bad episodes alone in my house before the pandemic, or alone in my car. Now there is never an “alone” so I’ve been more motivated to sort out my response system better.
I’ve found the successful techniques (and I’ll describe the two I use in maintenance/crisis situations in a bit) are the ones that allow me to count in a way that I can use my hands/fingers. This will seem benign to some people, but if your brain works like mine, you will relate to how using your hands to count breaths can help you focus productively. Some people (if you ever listen to Ezra Klein talk he reference this trait a lot) need a benign secondary focus (like doodling in class) to help the majority of the brain focus on the other thing. So for me, I need the counting fingers to help me focus on the breathing.
If I’m in a place where I can sit with my hands on my knees, this is ideal, but mainly I keep my hands free and palms up. I unclench my jaw and lower my shoulders and the I do 30 (yes, THIRTY) breaths were I break up my inhale into two pieces and then exhale in one piece. So it’s like: INHALE-INHALE/EXHALE in a 2/1 pattern. The way I use my open palms is I fold a finger into my fist on every exhale. This helps me count the number of breaths until I get to thirty, while my brain is counting the 2/1 patterns with each breath. The different forms of counting with the very simple breathing forces me outside of my anxious brain until the 30 breaths are done. Lately I’ve been trying to do this in my new hammock swing outside because the outdoors always helps me separate from my anxious brain better.
I’ve been trying to incorporate this into my morning routine, but on days where I know my anxiety will be high, I will try to force myself to do it a few times, especially before triggering situations like taking my Mom to dialysis or making phone calls. It’s still not a perfect routine yet but I always feel better on the days I squeeze it in somewhere.
This technique has been helping me for years now. It’s my Go-To when I am spiraling. My family has seen me do it (although I do try to find ways to get away in private if I can) and it has gotten me through a wide variety of spirals. My most vivid memory is when we were going to ride the subway in NYC (something that pushes a lot of my anxiety buttons) I focused on this technique from the moment we walked into Grand Central Station to the moment we were out in the open again near Castle Clinton.
The count for this one is 4-3-7. You inhale for 4 counts (which I count on my fingers making fists), hold for three (which I add to the four on my hands so I have seven fingers down), and then exhale for 7 (which I count by lifting all 7 of the fingers I folded down in the first two steps). The 4-3-7 pattern is very awkward and unnatural. It’s not a breathing technique to calm you in the same way the maintenance breathing is. It’s a breathing technique that, because of the awkwardness, basically forces my brain to either reboot if I’m in a spiral, or keeps me from focusing on the triggering thing (like crowds or heights) when I feel myself spiraling.
The reboot is key. For example, if I’ve done something “stupid” and I feel myself going through a Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria spiral it’s like a holding down the power button on your laptop and forcing a reboot. It’s like I’m saying to my brain, “Okay, you are stuck and there’s no unstucking you so I’m just going to shut you down and start you back up again.” The breathing requires focus and it doesn’t feel natural and so my brain starts putting all of it’s focus into the breathing and not whatever the thing was that was causing me to spiral in the first place.
So! Those are the two types of breathing techniques I rely on and how they work for me. Do you have any you like?