Yoga for Anxiety, Part 2: The Breath

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

Noticing our breath goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness, which I spoke about it Part 1 of this blog. In fact, intentionally changing the way we breathe is, some would say, at the core of a physical yoga practice. Breathing is also an incredibly effective strategy for managing anxiety.

When you experience anxiety, you may find that your breath moves very quickly, with short and shallow breaths, or you may find yourself holding your breath, particularly during moments of increased tension. The way we breathe, in fact, has significant effects on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Shallow, irregular breathing can increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure, while causing our mind to speed up. When our breath is full and regulated, our blood pressure and heart rates lower, balancing the nervous system and calming the mind. Long, slow exhales, in particular, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that prepares our body for rest.  

[A quick disclaimer: when doing breathing techniques, it is important to first consult a doctor if you have any breathing issues, like asthma. Take breath practices slow, especially if you’re new to them, and if you notice yourself becoming short of breath or lightheaded at any time, or you find yourself in any kind of pain, stop immediately and return to your normal breathing pattern.]

When you feel ready to try this practice, find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably or lay on the floor. Start by gently noticing where your breath is at this moment. Bringing some mindfulness toward your breath – keep a gentle awareness on how it feels and sounds, and just be curious about the places where you may be more open, or more tight and tense. Are you taking short, shallow breathes? How relaxed or tense do you feel, and where do you feel it? Is there a tightness in your chest? Are there places where you might be holding tension that are making it difficult for you to breathe smoothly and fully? Again, just notice what it happens in your body, without judgment. Perhaps you notice your body changing as you bring your awareness to it. Often when we bring our awareness to particular parts of the body where we store tension, we begin to automatically relax those spots.  

Breathing in and out through your nose, see if you can now intentionally soften parts of the face that may be holding tension. Now relax your shoulders, your chest, and your abdomen. If you’re having a difficulty time relaxing them on cue, try this: tighten the skin on your forehead before relaxing it, squeeze your eyes shut before softening them and so on for every part of the body as you move from head to toe, intentionally tightening, and then softening every muscle. Continue to breath as you do so, in and out through the nose.

Now that your body is a bit more relaxed, start to count the length of your inhales and exhales, keeping the breath through the nose if you can. Count for a few rounds of breath, and once you have a good idea of the general length of each, see if you slow down your exhales by a count of 1 (so if you typically exhaled to a count of 4, try exhaling to a count of 5). Keep the exhales longer than the inhales, make sure to breath all the way in at the top of your exhale before slowly extending and releasing the breath out on the exhale. Continue to do this over a few more breath cycles, at whatever pace feels right for you. When you’re ready, return to your normal breathing, and see if you notice any differences in your body and your mind. Allow yourself to sit in the effects of this practice before moving to something else.

If you felt comfortable doing this, you can continue to explore other breath practices, like 2-to-1 breathing and alternate nostril breathing when you’re ready. Breath practices like this one can greatly increase your emotional balance, and can be particularly helpful in moments of anxiety and stress to slow down the mind and bring you into your body and the present moment.

To read more about breath practices for anxiety, I recommend Bo Forbes’ book, Yoga for Emotional Balance. And stay tuned for Part 3 of Yoga for Anxiety, where we’ll explore the asana, or poses, of yoga that can be most helpful for managing your anxiety.


Yoga For Anxiety, Part 1: Mindfulness

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

You don’t have to be able to touch your toes to receive the benefits of this 5,000 year old practice. In fact, while yoga tends to be considered a form of physical exercise in the U.S., yoga has always been, at its core, a mental and spiritual practice, with the bulk of the work taking place in the mind. And it’s good for your mental health: increasing research is showing the benefits of yoga in relieving stress and anxiety, as well as depression, post-traumatic stress, and more.

The three parts of this series will include the introductory parts of yoga: mindfulness, breathing, and movement. Although they can each be challenging in their own way, they are also accessible to most people. Mindfulness, or present moment awareness, is one thing you can start practicing right now, alongside psychotherapy, to help manage your anxiety.

We hear the word mindfulness in many different contexts these days, so much so that it may be confusing to pin down what it actually means. Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition is well regarded, and I think, easiest to understand: Mindfulness simply means “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, and without judgment, to the present moment.”

Sounds simple enough, right? But in today’s world of technology, we often find more ways to distract ourselves from the present moment than to actually tune into it. It can be even harder for those struggling with anxiety – when you experience anxiety, you may find yourself ruminating over events of the past, or worrying about potential events in the future. Bringing your awareness to the present moment, even just for a few minutes, may feel counter to your typical patterns (in a good way!) and can be incredibly beneficial. It can feel a bit weird at first, but see if can try this practice of bringing your awareness to this moment here in front of you.

Start by taking a moment and connecting with your senses. It can be as simple as noticing the colors of the trees as you walk down the sidewalk, or noticing the feeling of the hot water on your hands as you wash dishes, and breathing in a smell that you enjoy...anything to bring you fully into this moment right here.

The next step is to try this present moment awareness with your thoughts and feelings – noticing, without judgment, a rising feeling of sadness, frustration, joy, or worried thoughts. By recognizing these thoughts and feelings as they arise, you can start to separate from them a bit, and even allow them to pass you by, or flow through you like a wave, or float away like leaves flowing down a stream. You are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings, but it is okay to have them. This is often the hardest part – the non-judgment. Can you notice those thoughts and feelings without criticizing yourself for having them? Or perhaps just notice that critical voice, without identifying with it? Can you even introduce some gentle self-compassion for yourself alongside your awareness?

When it comes to the practice of mindfulness, especially mindfulness meditation, the most common thing I hear people say is, “I’m not doing this right.” Be patient with yourself. You will, inevitably, get caught up in a past moment, a thought, a feeling, a storyline – the point is not to not have these thoughts, but to gently bring yourself back to the present moment each time you notice them, to let it move on and begin again.

Mindfulness is an active and lifelong practice, not something you can master or achieve. But over time, with patient practice, mindfulness creates space to let go of our tight hold on our worries and thoughts, as well as of the constant distractions and avoidance strategies we use to keep ourselves out of the present moment, and it brings us into it. As scary as the present moment can seem, when we meet it head on, just as it is, we may find that we stop fighting with it, arguing with our thoughts and emotions. When we stop trying to control everything, we can start to build acceptance, and with acceptance, you may find that you’re better able to soften and open up to the beauty of the moment right in front you.

Learn more about mindfulness in Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go, There You Are and explore Kristen Neff’s mindful self-compassion exercises here.  And stay tuned for Part 2 of Yoga for Anxiety: the Breath.

Grief Counseling – Take your time…...but how long is too long?

By: Peggy Burns, MA, LPC

Many, if not all of us, have experienced grief in our lifetime. The baby boomers most likely have experienced the loss of one or both of their parents by this time and perhaps even a sibling. I am one of those baby boomers who have lost both parents and two siblings.

The loss of a loved one is like no other experience, it’s devastating and heartbreaking. You may think you will never feel the same, and that's true, but you won’t always feel as bad as you do when it happened. 

Is There a Time Frame for Grieving?

Although there are well-recognized “stages of grief,” you may not go through them in order and you many even go backwards and feel anger again, for instance, or resignation, only to start all over again.   

Grieving is personal and the time frame varies from a year to two, perhaps longer. I say two years only because if you are still grieving like you did when you first experienced the loss, then it may be time to seek grief counseling. 

How Might Grief Counseling Help?

Grief counseling isn’t that different from other counseling. It is a forum to express your feelings, tell the counselor that you are still sad, still miss your loved one, and be able to talk about him or her. It’s a place where you can think about how to move forward with more clarity, strength, and understanding of how you are being affected by this loss in your life and what that means for your future.  

A person-centered approach to grief counseling offers a supportive and empathic relationship where you can feel safe, and offers unconditional positive acceptance as you struggle with your feelings of grief. Often times the person you are mourning is the person you have counted on as emotional support, and counseling can help supply a little of that missing support.

I find that one of the biggest questions is “What could I have done to prevent it from happening?” In most circumstances, there was nothing that you could have done to stop it from happening. Taking the personalization out of the picture is a necessary step and talking through these emotions will help with that process.

Grieving is also Active, Not Just Talking

The approach I like to use is based on Worden’s task-based model, which sees mourning as an active process that involves four tasks:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss;

  • Experiencing the reality of the loss;

  • Adjusting to the world without the deceased; And

  • Finding an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.

These four tasks time – your own time. Grief is a journey that people are reluctant to take because in order to change grief, you must experience the sadness and pain of loss. It is not a road one likes to travel down alone.

It seems like an impossible task at the beginning, but with time, it will start to happen. If it doesn’t or you feel stuck in one of the tasks for too long, then maybe it is time to seek a counselor.


The Power of Vulnerability

By: Emily Franchi: Posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 12:43 PM

The presence of a strong social support network has been proven to be vital to maintaining physical and mental health. Positive social support can help increase resiliency to stress and protect against trauma-related psychological difficulties. Research has shown that relationships can be strengthened and provide us with the greatest sense of fulfilment through the practice of vulnerability. 

Dr. Brené Brown has spent much of her career studying the power of vulnerability and why many of us shy away from being vulnerable with our loved ones and close friends. She highlights shame and the fear of being perceived by others as weak or as a burden as key forces driving our avoidance of vulnerability. In a sense, we block vulnerability in an effort to protect ourselves from disappointment and grief. However, Dr. Brown’s research has found that asking our loved ones for help and support during times of need actually fosters love, trust, and connectedness in relationships. 

Through her interviews with hundreds of individuals, she has found that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and open in our relationships, cultivates joy, belongingness, and an ability to live more authentically. Dr. Brown uses the word, “wholehearted,” to describe people living in a place of vulnerability. Wholeheartedness, she claims, is gained through a practice of gratitude, empathy, and a willingness to seek help and communicate openly in our most important relationships. Please watch the videos below to learn more about Dr. Brown’s research on vulnerability.

Redefining, Accepting and Creating Space for Failure

By: Emily Franchi: Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 10:17 PM

     Adolescence and early adulthood mark a period of life when individuals face the challenge of creating their own identities and experimenting in new social groups, occupational roles and changing environments. Today’s youths have the added pressure of comparing their own lives, relationships and successes to the idealized and curated online personas found on social media profiles. This unrealistic version of someone else’s life fosters a drive towards perfectionism and a fear of failure that can negatively affect motivation, happiness and satisfaction as individuals traverse an already challenging period of life. 

     With this in mind, it’s important to teach the teenagers and young adults in our lives to understand the benefits of failure, and, more importantly, the difference between failing and being a failure. To fail at a project or activity means to have put forward one’s best effort towards accomplishing a goal. Putting forth that effort is an accomplishment in and of itself. There is a significant difference between failing and being a failure. Failure is inevitable, and creates space for an individual to grow and to learn new ways of thinking and approaching a problem in the future. It does not mean that one “is a failure.” To “be a failure” is but a mindset; it blocks creativity and the road to success by creating a voice within ourselves that tells us to stop trying. The most important lesson one can learn as a young adult is how to move forward from failure, accepting it as a lesson learned and an opportunity to try again.