How can something as easy as breathing exercises for anxiety and depression be helpful? Almost sounds too good to be true, right?

Well, first, keep in mind the utterly amazing fact that your body automatically knows how to inhale and exhale. Even when you are asleep.  Breathing is one of many cool things your body automatically does to keep you alive.

You don’t need to think about it. Breathe in. Breathe out. Voila. Breath just naturally happens.

But, breathing in a helpful way when you are anxious or depressed feels neither easy nor automatic.

In fact, you may inadvertently worsen the anxiety or depression symptoms depending on how you are breathing.

Modern day scientists discovered and fine tuned what Eastern masters knew long ago: Breathing affects health.

That is, breathing well goes hand in hand with feeling well. And with even feeling better than just ‘well’. 

So, it is safe to say that breathing exercises for anxiety and depression have been used effectively for thousands of years. As such, they have stood the test of time.

Further, a ‘fun fact’ about breath is that it is under both voluntary and involuntary control. In other words, breath is automatic, yet you can also intervene to intentionally change your breath in order to change your mood and physiology.

Thank you, autonomic nervous system!

Over the last decade or so, breathing exercises for anxiety and depression have become more widespread. And the techniques go far beyond the classic “just breath into a paper bag”. (Which is controversial at best.)

Breathing exercises designed for anxiety and depression actually work. And can be done anywhere, anytime, without any tools or pills. 

If you have ever had anxiety or depression, you know how awful every moment of existence can feel. Often, the two conditions occur at the same time. Talk about a double whammy.

The most highly recommended breathing exercises for anxiety and depression share some overlap. But, they are also different in many ways.

Breathing exercises to decrease anxiety and depression work because of how they affect heart rate and the mind. And whatever affects the mind affects the body. And vice versa.

Let’s break this down a bit. 

First up: Anxiety

Most everyone will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. The intensity varies from mild to moderate to severe. 

When you feel anxious, you experience changes in your body. For example, you may panic, hyperventilate, and/or breathe shallowly and quickly. Or your mind may start to race, and you suddenly feel woozy, nauseous, or as if you are going crazy. 

Anxiety is generally associated with breathing more shallowly and more quickly. This happens even if you are trying to do the exact opposite.  Hyperventilation can result, so less oxygenated blood flows to your brain. 

The most straightforward technique is simply to lengthen your exhale. 

Let’s call this technique the Exhalation Emphasis breath. 

Here is how to do the Exhalation Emphasis breath, either standing, sitting, or laying down:

  1. Before taking a breath in,  breath out. Push as much air out of your lungs as possible through that one exahalion. 
  2. Let your lungs naturally take in breath to fill the lungs. Do not force it. 
  3. On your next inhales/exhales, spend more time on breathing out than on breathing in. Some people count to do this. They may breathe in to the count of 3 and out to the count of 5. 
  4. Continue with the inhalation and the longer exhalation for at least a minute or so.

My favorite breathing technique to help with anxiety is called Alternate Nostril Breathing. 

The Sanskrit term is Nadi Shodhana. 

Practicing this breath will help you calm your nervous system. Just one minute of alternate nostril breathing can decrease stress and clear your mind! 

You can also try this technique when you’re feeling especially stressed or on edge.

The instructions sound complicated, but the practice is actually straight-forward. 

To do this, you will be breathing in and out through your nose only.

  1. Sit in a comfy position, perhaps with legs crossed.
  2. Place your left hand on your left knee.
  3. Bring your right hand to the area between your eyebrows.Place your index finger there.
  4. Exhale fully. 
  5. With your right thumb, close your right nostril.
  6. Inhale through the left nostril
  7. Close the left nostril with your ring finger.
  8. Open the right nostril and exhale through it.
  9. Inhale through the right nostril
  10. Close the right nostril and exhale left.
  11. Inhale through the left nostril.
  12. Close left nostril with your ring finger.
  13. Open the right nostril and exhale.
  14. Repeat for 1 or more minutes. 
  15. Finishing with an exhale on the left is recommended. 
Feeling anxious is not fun. Knowing that you can regulate  your breath in deliberate ways to help you manage anxiety is empowering. 

Depression

Depression is another psychological state that involves a lot of suffering. Breathing in particular ways can help to diminish depression. Skeptics are especially welcome to give it a try!

Cardiovascular exercise helps improve depression. Exercise creates hormonal changes associated with feeling better. However, when depressed, exercise is a big ask. It is probably one of the last things most depressed people want to do or feel capable of doing. 
Researchers have discovered that deep breathing that happens in cardiovascular exercise can be simulated through deliberate deep breathing.  

This is not your yoga teacher’s breathing. It is not chill, Zen, or about ohming. Nor is it the same as the types of breathing recommended to manage anxiety. 

Deep Breathing

Breathe in super deeply, as if you were about to go underwater. Start with your belly. Expand your lungs.  Imagine you have gills, and you are widening at your ribcage. Exhale. By doing this 20 times, you will derive similar benefits as with cardiovascular exercise. 

Equal Breathing

Research has also demonstrated that breathing in equal duration helps to alleviate depression symptoms.

Simply inhale through your nose for a count of 4 and exhale through your nose for a count of 4.

Breathing is not a panacea for anxiety or depression. However, the way you breath can  contribute to these conditions, and the use of breathing exercises for anxiety and depression can help you to feel better.

As with most things, the more you practice, the more natural what you are practicing feels. Over time, with practice, you may notice that breathing exercises for anxiety and depression occur naturally, often to the point they do not require deliberate effort. 

And that certainly can bring you a sigh of relief! (Long exhale please.)

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist in private practice specializing in the interfacing of mind-body techniques to improve psychological well being.

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How many times have you said, or heard others say, they want to develop a habit or get rid of one?  

Habits such as going to bed earlier, consuming less alcohol, exercising more often, or saving more money each month are examples of habits people tend to deem  worth having.  Habits like driving too fast, eating late at night,  excessive spending, or  interrupting people when they speak are examples of habits more likely considered worth losing.

For many of us, identifying what we want to change about ourselves is  easy. Actually making changes and sustaining  them – not so easy!

Entire industries are based on promises of change.  Even a holiday, New Years, is about resolving to improve something about  ourselves,  ie to change a particular habit. 

As a psychologist, I am fascinated by what motivates people to change and how they stay motivated.

There are lots of tips out there for how to improve your chances of successful habit change. Generic suggestions typically include the importance of consistency, daily practice, keeping  it simple, hanging out with likeminded people who are already successful with the habit you are trying to build, and incorporating accountability.  Setting realistic, measurable goals and rewarding the baby steps along the way are other common recommendations.

Ideas such as these are solid. They make sense.

But not for everyone.

 In my clinical practice, I notice that generic lists are not necessarily helpful  for every individual. There are no blanket suggestions that work for all of us.  “It depends” is often the response to questions about personality.  So many factors influence our behavior in ways that make it impossible to state hard and fast facts about our inclinations.  History, experience, culture, expectations,  genetics, and family background are factors that can’t possibly be accounted for in a generic list of how to develop and  sustain  habits.

Former attorney and now author Gretchen Rubin apparently agrees. She developed a cool rubric to help people improve their likelihood of making habits stick.  She says that knowing how we respond to expectations can make the difference between success and failure.  Each of us generally falls into one of four categories — Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel—depending on how we respond to outer and inner expectations.  When we know in which category we fall, we are better able to understand ourselves. That works to our advantage, especially when it comes to goals we set for ourselves and  habits we want to strengthen.

Here is the basic gist:

  • Upholders respond to outer and inner expectations. They tend not to disappoint others or themselves.
  • Questioners question expectations and will meet expectations only if the explanation makes sense to them.                                                                                                                                                                             
  • Rebels resist outer and inner expectations.    This is the least common category.
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet self-imposed expectations.   They benefit significantly from external accountability. This is the most common category of the four.

Recognizing which tendency you have (to do this, click here to take her quiz) will guide your approach to how to make a habit stick.

This column is not a review of Ms Rubin’s theory, nor is it an endorsement of it necessarily. Her theory though highlights a basic tenet:  No one approach works for everyone. 

My take home messages are:

Know(ing )yourself is an important requirement to making effective and lasting change.  What works for you based on your personality, prior attempts, and/or reasons for wanting to make changes? This may shift over time and is going to be different from the person to your left or right.

Practice makes progress. If you fall off the horse, just get back on. No drama.

Perfection is the enemy of good.  All or none thinking (“I have to do this perfectly or I am a failure”) is a setup . Throwing in the towel due to less than perfect execution or outcome will doom any possible success.

I will sign off now.  My habit of being in bed by 10 pm must prevail.  I am an Upholder, after all!

Happiness. Ahhh. The elusive pursuit. “I just want to be happy!” say friends, family, and strangers. Magazine headlines, book titles, websites, FB posts, BLOGS (hello!) – all promise happiness. “Do this!” and you will be happy, the lists say. Advertisers suggest that if you use their product, you too will be happy (and beautiful, and successful, and fill-in-the-blank). I have been thinking of what not to do in order to increase the likelihood of feeling happy. The bottom line, regardless of the type of list:
There is only one person in life who can create your happiness: YOU
Here are ideas of happiness “DO NOTs”:

​1.DO NOT EXTERNALIZE 
By this I mean to look inside of yourself instead of basing your happiness on what you believe other people say will lead to happiness. Looking outside and at the ideas of family, friends, society, how-to lists (like this one!) – or to products – is not likely to lead to sustained joy.
2.DO NOT “SHOULD” WHAT YOU FEEL, REALLY FEEL
This may sound super corny. Corny can still be true. Often we intellectualize, acting in terms of “shoulds”, and we trump what our instincts tell us. Our instincts tend to be accurate guides. Learn to trust your built-in compass. Feel what you feel. Be in it.
3.DO NOT resist darkness
Life contains both dark and light. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you embrace the darkness, you open the door to the light. That sounds like one of those feel- good mantras – and it happens to be true. I know that it is through these dark times that I learn the most.  I breathe it all in, and I notice what it is that’s making me feel fear. I try to get curious about my internal reality and stay in the present moment.   This is hard to do when I’m feeling down. I want to run away and distract. But when I dive in, I see that the darkness is a virtual reality created by moi. I look at the fear of not having enough, and I see that what I’m afraid of is a thought I choose to entertain.
4.DO NOT say “no” to the now.
The more I try to escape the present moment, the more miserable I am. This continually surprises me. When I stay right here, right now, even the most ordinary tasks become extraordinary. Washing the dishes even feels alive. But if I try to exchange the now for the future, I lose out on a lot of opportunity. Being in the now is simply about noticing what’s here, right now. As I write this, I hear my fingers tapping on the keyboard. I notice the hum of my desktop, and I feel my butt on the chair. And above all, I feel my feelings. I’m feeling a bit anxious as I write this. And that’s okay.
5.DO NOT BE afraid of making mistakes
If I am afraid of making mistakes, I assume that I have something to lose. I also assume that there is a perfect way of doing something. Yet, I do not and cannot know any of this. I don’t know if making a mistake helps me grow. Maybe making a mistake is the necessary path for me. We live in our heads. We manufacture a reality that we believe is real when it’s not.
6.DO NOT aim for perfection
We try to be perfect.   We think it’ll bring approval from others. And then that approval will make us feel loved and feel good about ourselves. Yet, the act of trying to be perfect means dismissing ourselves. It means not loving who we are right now.
7.DO NOT chase happiness
I fall into the habit of chasing happiness. But to me, it’s more like I’m avoiding my feelings. I feel bad, so I want to be happy. I create an image of a future where I’m happy, and I long for it. I want it now. I think to myself, “If only I had that, I would be happy.” Yet, that thought keeps me stuck. The wanting happiness snatches me out of the present moment. When I let go of wanting to be somewhere else, I notice what’s right here. Sometimes it isn’t what I want, but even what I think I want is another thought. Each thought that says I need something else is an opportunity for me to stay in the present moment.
8.DO NOT try to control life
I can’t and don’t control life. Neither do you. I control my reactions and actions but not much else. When I try to manipulate life, people, and places, I end up exhausted. It’s not my domain. It’s not up to me to control outcomes. All I can do is follow my heart, my inner compass, and see what happens. I am here to experience both the good and the bad, and everything in between.
9.DO NOT put off your dreams
Dreams are scary. It can take years to muster up the courage to do the things you truly want to do. Dreams begin with one step. Start somewhere. And start before you feel ready.
10.DO NOT try to fix others
Let people travel their own path. We have mistakes we need to make. We have experiences to collect. When we see that life will take care of itself, we have no need to control others. This can been especially hard with loved ones. There is no fixing, because there is no perfection. There is only this moment.
One of the things I learned from being a psychologist is that we tend to take our thoughts too seriously.
We tend to take life too seriously.

Laugh! Lighten up on yourself!

You are worthy.

These ideas are adapted from the work of Henri Junttila

“All deliberate change first comes from denying the logic that most gives you comfort”

What is Mike Dooley, the author of the quote, saying?

My take is that he is reminding us that change is hard, and that we tend to take our thoughts as fact, especially when those thoughts have become automatic.

It is easy to convince ourselves with rationalizations. We convince ourselves with the familiar comfort of certain logic, even if it leads to maladaptive decisions.

Let’s say “Sara” wants to establish a workout schedule. Her goal is to exercise in order to feel more energized in her body. She decides on the third day, though, that it is really too cold to go for a walk. Rather than challenge that logic by asking herself, for example, if there is some other activity–perhaps indoors–she could do for exercise, or dress in clothing that will keep her warm, she convinces herself that it really is too cold to work out.

How do YOU know when you are rationalizing, allowing yourself to be deceived by your own convincing logic?

Greg Hicks and Rick Foster set out on a three-year journey to study extremely happy people. The began to study happiness in 1995, and they eventually traveled to all 50 states, 7 continents, and over 40 countries, finding and interviewing hundreds of extremely happy people. Their initial research uncovered a system of nine choices that’s been studied by experts. These choices are showed to lead to better health and job performance, and effective stress-management. In their book How We Choose to Be Happy, they found that there are nine choices happy people make. One of the nine is to practice Appreciation.  The other choices include: Intention, Accountability, Identification, Centrality, Recasting, Options, Giving, Truthfulness, and Synergy.

​Happy people actively feel gratitude and choose to live with an attitude of gratitude. They don’t buy into what geneticists say, which is that we have an unmovable “happiness set-point.” The happiest people, according to behaviorists, can move beyond the biological set point. How?  Yoga, meditation, and other such practices. These are exactly the techniques I teach in my clinical practice because they work! (I can testify personally to that fact.) In fact, many studies suggest that gratitude can be learned by anyone and can be transformative. This means that by actively practicing gratitude, we can actually raise our “happiness set-point,” regardless of the situation, and no matter the circumstance. Appreciation makes us aware of the blessings present in our life moment to moment. There is always something to be grateful for if you are fully engaged in what’s happening right now instead of replaying the past or worrying about the future. Besides a higher happiness set point, ten benefits of gratitude include:

  1. Feeling more connected (less lonely)
  2. Stronger immune system
  3. Improved emotional equilibrium
  4. Better sleep
  5. Increased energy
  6. More confidence in ourselves
  7. Deeper relaxation
  8. We are more attractive
  9. Increased creativity
  10. Easier bounce back from difficulty

To experience these benefits we must consciously choose to practice gratitude. Here are some suggestions for how to practice gratitude. Consider including one of these exercises in your life:

  1. Set your intention to write in a Gratitude Journal for one week. Every morning, start your day with a simple gratitude exercise that involves writing down 3-10 things you are grateful for, both big and small. Some research suggests that an even more effective method is to write in the Gratitude Journal once a week. Experiment and decide what works best for you.
  2. Set the timer for three minutes and sit still. This is a stillness practice. Quietly think about what you appreciate. Don’t edit and no worries about if it makes sense or not.
  3. For a week write one thank you note per day to tell someone how much you appreciate them and why.
  4. Practice self-appreciation. Take time for seven days in a row to write yourself a note of gratitude. This one is my favorite.

What’s even better? Studies suggest these gratitude exercises will increase your sense of well-being by at least 10%. Don’t take my word for it. Please try it and find out for yourself. Let me know how it goes.

I was listening to a TED Radio Hour on happiness recently.  The host, Guy Raz, asked his guest, musician Pharrell Williams, to reveal the secret to happiness.

Williams was perplexed.

Here is what he said:  “I’m not some guy who’s walking around smiling every day.  We all have our ups and downs, lefts and rights, and diagonals.”

​This, from the man whose song “Happy” is a worldwide hit, and whose four minute video is so contagious it is almost impossible to watch without dancing or singing along.

What Williams seems to be suggesting is brilliant:  To think of happiness as the ultimate and ever-lasting goal is missing the point.

Consider the Declaration of Independence. The rights aren’t life, liberty and happiness.

What we get is the pursuit. The pursuit of happiness.

What does this mean? It suggests that happiness is an approach to life. Happiness is a mindset that includes moments of total joy, but is really about responding to ups and downs and diagonals with a commitment to health.

An attitude of happiness combined with the skills of resilience keeps us from being dragged down by everyday stressors.

As I write this post, I am singing Williams’ lyrics in my head:

“Here come bad news talking this and that. Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold back.  Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine.  No offense to you, don’t waste your time Here’s why. Because I’m happy!
(Luckily, you can’t see me as I dance to the lyrics!)

Parts of this post were adapted from an article by Jan Bruce —thanks Jan

My yoga teacher shared a story last week that I love.
His five year old son recently went cross country skiing for the first time.
The boy loved it!
His dad noticed that whenever his son fell down, his son talked aloud to himself.
The words he spoke were enthusiastic, joyous, and confident.
“He’s down, but he is back up!”
“You got this! C’mon, you got this!”
The self-talk was overwhelming positive.
My yoga teacher invited us to apply the same kind of attitude toward ourselves on the mat.
Can we transition to poses with enthusiasm, joy, and confidence, even if we wobble?
If we fall or lose balance, can we just get back up with a smile?
How about if we adopt this attitude not just on ski trails or the yoga mat, but in our daily life?
As someone who only did things I felt reasonably good at, I missed out on a lot of life.
Luckily, that is changing.
In life, I allow myself to wobble, lose my balance, and fall.   And I have learned to  get right back up, instead of generating self-criticism and shame.

Try it!

Feelings are natural. Feelings are normal.
Some are easier to recognize, regulate, and tolerate than others.
Most of us can easily list the feelings we like, and the feelings we would rather avoid.  Who wouldn’t choose joy over anxiety? The perennial pursuit of enjoyable feelings and avoidance of unpleasant feelings are what fuel addictions, overeating, and mindless screen time viewing.

Feelings, though, are just feelings. They are biochemical events that ebb and flow. Feelings do not last indefinitely. In the moment, though, it feels like they will last forever.

Emotional overwhelm may manifest as anxiety, anger, irritability, crying, or depression. It can appear in physical form, like a fast heartbeat, tension, or sweaty palms.

Here are three ideas for managing overwhelming feelings. These techniques will also quell the physical symptoms that accompany feeling overwhelmed.

BREATHE.  There are lots of wonderful breathing practices to help elicit the Relaxation Response. Conscious breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, whose job is to help us feel calm.  Try taking 10 slow inhalations and exhalations.  Make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. Perhaps inhale to a count of 4 and exhale to a count of 6. Inhale through your nose and exhale either through your nose or your mouth. Keep it simple.

PRESENCE. Another benefit to breathing consciously is that it brings us back to the moment. Overwhelm is associated with feeling pressured about something in the future. Slow down your breathing to slow down your mind. Bring yourself back to the NOW.

REFRAME your thoughts.  Feeling emotionally overwhelmed is a result of unhelpful self-talk. If you think that you will never be in a healthy relationship, for example, you may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of dating. Reframe your thinking so that it is more accurate and neutral. Examples:  “Just because I have not been in a long term relationship, doesn’t mean I will never be”; “In order to be in a healthy relationship, I have to start dating. I WANT to start dating”; “My fear is not a fact; being afraid of never being in a healthy relationship doesn’t mean I will never be in a healthy relationship”.
Learning how to ride the waves of emotion is like a surfer learning how to surf ocean waves. Riding the waves with acceptance and presence WILL help you manage your feelings.

​Practice makes progress. Breathing more consciously, bringing mindful awareness to the present, and ensuring that your thoughts are adaptive and accurate will help you be an expert at managing overwhelming emotion.
I can’t guarantee it will make you a better surfer in the actual ocean.

Note: I originally wrote this article as a guest blogger for the blog “personaldevelopmentcafe.com”

How to be Your Authentic Self in a Relationship

Being your ‘Authentic Self’ can be difficult. Being in a relationship can be difficult. Put the two together, and you have a real challenge on your hands!

What/Who is your Authentic Self?

There are lots of definitions of Authentic Self. I think of our Authentic Self as who we really are, once the mask is removed. Psychologists believe there is not just one Self, but a collection of parts that together constitute different aspects of who we are. Ou r Authentic  Self is who we are at our core. We are spontaneous, comfortable in our own skin, and full of vitality when we are in our Authentic Self mode. You know that sense of feeling g totally free to be yourself, even if when that means showing vulnerability?  To have a partner with whom you can be yourself is vital to a healthy relationship.

Who/What is your Constructed Self?

In contrast to Authentic Self is the Constructed Self. We all have Constructed Selves. When we are in a Constructed Self mode, we are adapting to the environment to be approved of and get our needs met. So, if in a relationship you have to be a certain way that isn’t truly a reflection of ‘you’, then you are likely in a Constructed Self mode. If we have to act in a particular manner in order to be liked or loved, the relationship does not have a good prognosis.

For example, if when “Marissa” is on a date, she boasts about herself and gossips about others, she is likely in her constructed Self mode. She is acting in a way that helps her to feel approved of and liked.  Another example may be when “Lisa” spends the night drinking shots and playing beer games because she believes she has to in order to be popular and/or find a guy to date.

The key is to know when you are in your Authentic Self, and when you may be in a Constructed Self mode.   Some situations require that we be in a Constructed mode, and that is ok. But a relationship based on our Constructed Self is doomed to fail.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken”

Inspirational & Self-Affirming Quotes to keep in mind, and to offset ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts)
Find and repeat your favorites, until a more natural, automatic neural pathway is established.
Whatever you practice, strengthens.
The thoughts you repeat to yourself change the structure of the brain.


Use your mind to change your brain in a favorable way.

  • “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.” – Janis Joplin
  • “The  important thing is somehow to begin.” – Henry Moore
  • “Knowing what you want is the first step to getting it.” – Louise Hart
  • “The  only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the  next.” – Mignon McLaughlin
  • “What   lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what      lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “I   cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” – Herbert B. Swope
  • “Experience  is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” – Aldous Huxley
  • “A  happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of  hardships.” – Helen Keller
  • “If  you’re going through hell, keep going. ” – Winston Churchill
  • “I  have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!” – Dr. Seuss
  • “To face despair and not give in to it, that’s courage.” – Ted Koppel
  • “Little  by little does the trick.” – Aesop
  • “Everything  is okay in the end, so if it’s not okay, then it’s not the end yet.”

Incorporated from Arielle Bair