Breathwork and Visualisation for Anxiety and Panic
If you have ever been troubled by anxiety or panicky feelings, a simple technique you can use in the immediate moment is to slow your breathing and use visualisation. This technique works best if you can practice it beforehand so that it becomes second nature to you, but if you need it right now it will give you a few moments of respite. The more you practice it, the deeper the relaxation.
Breathwork and visualisation sound such simple things and seem quite obvious, but they are very much experiential exercises that have a sound rationale. Slowing and deepening your breath floods your brain with oxygen, which enables the fight or flight response we feel when anxious or panicky to lessen so that we can start to think more rationally and calmly.
There are many ways of using breathwork that you might like to research, and in the meantime you might like to try the technique described below. You can extend the counting as you become more proficient to a count of ten or twenty. Find a breathing technique that works best for you and try that a few times. If that doesn’t feel right, try another one.
Before you start you will need to have a visualisation ready. Bring to mind something that represents stability, strength or safety. This could be a person, a place or a thing. So for example, you might have a favourite place where you feel peaceful, or there may have been someone in your life you respect, it could even be a much loved pet. Really bring this image to life in your mind, use all of your senses to see it, feel it, touch it. Does it have a particular smell? Allow your senses to remember the image as vividly as possible and stay with this for a few minutes.
Once you have this visualisation firmly in place you can then start the exercise.
Firstly, focus on taking slow and deep breaths; in through your nose for the count of five and then out for the count of five through your mouth. You may wish to blow the breath out, making an audible sound. Allow your stomach to expand fully on the in breath and squeeze tight on the out breath.
It is important to count the breath in and out as this helps to focus your mind on the task. When we feel anxious or panicky our thoughts race, buzzing around our head. By focusing on the task of counting, the thoughts won’t necessarily disappear but now your brain is engaged in a task, it cannot run entirely freely.
After a few breaths of counting to five, try and extend to a count of ten on the in-breath and ten on the out-breath. If this is not possible, move on to the next step.
Now it is time to bring in your visualisation. Keep your slow breathwork going but you no longer have to count. This frees up your mind to fully bring to mind the image, allowing your senses to feel and experience it as much as possible. Certain senses are very powerful and can transport you back to a particular moment in time. This will help you to move out of the present moment, and away from the anxious thoughts.
The purpose of this exercise is not to get rid of anxious thoughts or panic completely, but it will help it to abate for a few moments so that you can think more clearly. The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it anywhere and at any time, and you can keep doing it from moment to moment. These seemingly brief moments of respite will extend to longer moments, so that in time you will become aware that you really are able to deal with things despite what those racing thoughts are saying. You can never completely remove anxiety or panic from your life as they serve a purpose, but you can learn ways of dealing with them and in doing so, build a foundation of resilience.
To recap (for those of you who don’t have time to read the whole text whilst anxious or panicking):
Preparation: Lodge in your brain a strong / safe image.
1. Inhale through your nose - count 5
2. Exhale through your mouth - count 5
3. Inhale through your nose - count 10
4. Exhale through your mouth – count 10
5. Visualise strong /safe image (really bring it to your mind)
If you are unable to visualise a safe space, is there a particular colour that you associate with peace, safety or stability? See that colour in your mind and as you inhale, breath the colour into yourself. Breath the colour all the way into your body right down to your fingertips and your toes. Notice the way the colour affects your physical body as it travels through it. Notice how this feels. Keep breathing the colour in.
It may be that you find this difficult, perhaps there is too much tension or resistance within your body for the colour to dissipate. If this is the case you could notice what colour the tension or resistance is. Then try and exhale this out on the out-breath. You will end up breathing in one colour and exhaling another. Continue with this until you feel ready to stop.