If you have ever had anxiety, then you likely know what it feels like to experience a panic attack. As our bodies become out of sync, it responds with varying symptoms. During the attack, you may feel at a loss and unsure of how to calm your body down. It can be very frightening too, if you don’t know what is happening.
Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is an approach to therapy that helps to bring mind and body balance. CFT is centered around the idea that there are three systems people use to regulate their emotions. Known as the threat, drive, and soothing systems, when one is out of sync it can affect all other systems.
While other therapeutic methods such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy target the threat and drive systems (which is important of course), CFT aims to directly balance the soothing system. It often isn’t enough to just lower our fight / flight / freeze response, but rather to actively and intentionally activate a physical and emotional soothing response. One way CFT helps to balance the soothing system is through breathing exercises.
Known as Soothing Rhythm Breathing (SRB), this practice targets the nervous system by helping to reset it through the breathing cycle. What many people don’t realize is that our breathing can either agitate or calm our bodies and mind. Not only does practicing breathing exercises calm you down, but it can help your heart rate so you can become more prepared to face life’s challenges. Here is how soothing rhythm can help you to reduce your anxiety during a panic attack AND lower your baseline anxiety over time so that you are much less likely to experience intense anxiety or panic attacks.
Soothing Rhythm Breathing in CFT Is An Important Emotional Regulation Skill
To understand how to do this exercise, let’s first go over why it is so effective in treating anxiety.
Certain types of breathing can help to either speed our minds up or slow it down. When we are experiencing stress, our breathing rhythm transforms from slow to quick, without us being aware of it usually. Anxiety is often a vicious feedback loop between our bodies and minds. As your breathing becomes more rapid, your nervous system gets the alert that something is majorly wrong (even when nothing at all is wrong). So your alertness is increased for perceived threats and tension increases quickly. You begin to have racing thoughts and so much more. This rapid breathing activates your threat system.
So, what happens when you reverse that? By learning how to breathe properly, you can counteract the negative reactions your body experiences during an anxiety attack. This also helps with your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is an important component of calming your body down. Simply put, HRV is the variation in time between each of your heartbeats. The more relaxed you are, your heart rate will slow down and not be as rapid.
Soothing Breathing Rhythm: An Exercise for Mindfulness
It may sound complicated, but this is a really simple exercise that anyone can do at home (and anywhere). At first, it does take some practice to understand how to do it properly, so I always recommend doing these types of exercises when you are in a safe place, free from distraction, and a relatively calm mood. This way, when you are experiencing an anxiety attack, you can just focus on breathing instead of trying to learn how to do it.
The mechanics of this exercise is important, so you should be aware of how to send air from your chest to the belly. This helps to activate what is known as the vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates our “rest & digest” system, which is the polar opposite of anxiety’s “fight / flight / freeze” mode. Let’s take a look at one way to practice the powerful tool of Soothing Rhythm Breathing in CFT (Compassion Focused Therapy).
- Sitting upright with your feet on the floor, gently arch your lower back and find a posture that feels strong, relaxed and ready.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- As you inhale, try to send air only to your stomach. You should feel the hand on your belly move, and the one on your chest will not.
- As you exhale, the hand resting on your stomach will move towards you.
Now that you understand the mechanics behind it, let’s talk about the steps to slow your breathing down, increase your heart rate variability, feel less anxious AND feel more self-support.
- Take a slow deep breath, filling your stomach with air, inhaling until you are comfortably full. Hold this for 2 seconds, then exhale for 6 seconds.
- Gently inhale into your stomach for 4 seconds then hold your breath for 2 seconds.
- Exhale for six seconds.
- Repeat steps 1- for a total of five times. In total, this exercise will last 60 seconds.
Practicing breathing and mindfulness exercises can do wonders for your anxiety symptoms. Please reach out to me to learn more about CFT and how it can help you today. Over the years, I’ve seen CFT help countless individuals find the emotional relief and stability they seek, including those who have tried other types of therapy without success. To read more about Compassion Focused Therapy and Online CFT, please click HERE.
I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Hawaii and an Accredited CBT Therapist in the UK with over 16 years experience. I have also received advanced specialist trainings in Compassion Focused Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Please feel free to contact me at my Honolulu or London clinic to set up a free online CFT Test Drive.