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Just Breathe….Calm The Body And The Mind Will Follow

A cry from a newborn is a signal the baby has taken a breath and is alive. From birth until death humans breathe automatically as a natural process of life.

However, even though we are all using our lungs, there are different types of breathing occurring. Someone very stressed, on the verge of a panic attack, uses shallow, short breaths. In contrast, another person lying on the beach in the warm sun likely takes slow, deep, peaceful breaths.

It is true that it is easier to breathe deeply on the beach than in a stressful situation, but it is also true that you can change your anxiety levels by controlling your breathing.

If you calm the body and the mind will follow.

A Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen teaches this concept. The word tong means sending out, and the word len means bringing in. When you breathe, you are bringing in oxygen and sending out carbon monoxide. The concept of taking in good and letting go of the bad is a metaphor with practical application.  

There are 4 phases

1. Find a moment of mindful quiet

For a few moments, sit quietly and focus inward and picture a calm, peaceful place.

2. Slow deep breathing

Breath in, Breath out.  With each in-breath we imagine ourselves breathing in dark qualities such as pain, constriction, and heat. Then with the out-breath we send out light, openness, coolness. We consciously feel these qualities moving in and out of our entire bodies. Do this for several minutes.

3. Identify your emotional pain and let it go

Continue breathing slowly and deeply.  Move your attention to any emotional pain you may be feeling in the moment. Breathe in the qualities of that pain, and breathe out peace, openness, and coolness.

David Richo says, “As you breathe in and out in this way, you are acting like a filter, taking in what is painful, transforming it within yourself, and sending out openness and light. Imagine … breathing in dark qualities such as pain, constriction, and heat. Then with the out-breath … send out light, openness, coolness.“

Consciously feel these opposites moving in and out of your entire body for several minutes as you breathe in and out.  Feel and accept the pain as you breathe in.

4. Acceptance

As your release your breath, feel peace, openness, and coolness—all qualities brought by acceptance of the pain.

One of the challenges of being human is learning to accept pain, disappointment and loss. As we begin to accept pain, we learn from it and eventually heal. It feels like a contradiction to allow something into our lives that seems dangerous and undesirable in order for us to be transformed and experience peace, but it is true.

Richo suggests to think of it this way:

  • We breathe in the experience of grief and loss that come with change and endings others are feeling, and we breathe out release from and resolution of them.
  • We breathe in others’ disappointment because of failed plans and breathe out trust that things will work out for spiritual progress.
  • We breathe in the unfairness and injustice others are facing, and we breathe out courage to stand up to injustice and act justly toward others while remaining non-retaliatory.
  • We breathe in physical and psychological suffering and breathe out healing and serenity.
  • We breathe in the hurt all humans feel when others are disloyal or unloving, and we breathe out love and loyalty. 

Find The Gift

You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden and somebody brings you gorgeous food on a silver platter. But you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand but take the pain as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose. (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Caroline Myss, On Life after Death [Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2008], p. 22

If we breathe in pain, sadness, and loss with acceptance and reverence, we can breathe out growth and insight. We will receive our gift.

The following song by Jimmy Buffet teaches the concept of breathe in, breathe out, move on.

Here is a good guide for beginning meditation: 

Great TED talk on the mind body connection:

Sources: Richo, David (2005), The Five Things We Cannot Change: and the Happiness We Find by Embracing

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Caroline Myss, On Life after Death (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2008).

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Anxiety: Name It and Tame It

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During a classic scene from the movie, “Star Wars”, Obi Wan Kenobe instructs Luke to, “trust your feelings,” so that Luke can focus, reduce his anxiety and save the Empire. Psychologists have long believed that people who talk about their feelings have more control over them, and less anxiety but they haven’t known how that works.

Name It–Find The Source Of The Problem

Often we are like the man who hears the fire alarm go off because he is smoking in bed. The man, only partially awake, thinks he is hearing his alarm clock. Because he is not thinking clearly, the man takes out his shotgun and blows the clock away, then goes back to sleep while his house burns down

This example is similar to using drugs or other addictions to numb out feelings of pain, inadequacy or social anxiety instead of solving the problem. To find a lasting solution, you must address the source other wise you could be making things worse.


You may think you have gotten rid the dandelions when you mow the field, but in reality, you just spread the seeds. The seeds will multiply and your problem is now worse than before you applied your solution. Solutions are found in understanding the root of our anxiety through our feelings.

Our Needs Govern Our Emotions

Have you noticed the vagrant on the side of the road holding the sign that says, “Will work for food?” In a sense, we all carry around signs that say, “Will work for needs.” Our emotions are the expression of our emotional needs. They are very important to our mental well-being. The clearer we are about our needs and feelings, the better we understand the better we are able to cope.  If we name our emotions or needs, we can tame them.  

How Does Name it and Tame it Work?

New Research

Brain scans show that putting negative emotions into words calms the brain’s emotion center and people are able to “let the feelings go.” Here is a quote an article from a the 2007 issue of Live Science on Psychological Science: UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues hooked 30 people
 up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines, which scan the 
brain to reveal which parts are active and

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inactive at any given moment. They asked the subjects to look at pictures of male or female faces making
 emotional expressions. Below some of the photos was a choice of words describing 
the emotion—such as “angry” or “fearful”—or two possible names for the people
 in the pictures, one male name and one female name.

When presented with these choices, the subjects were asked to pick the most appropriate emotion or gender-appropriate name to fit the face they saw. When the participants chose labels for the negative emotions, activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex region—an area associated with thinking in words
 about emotional experiences—became more active, whereas activity in the amygdala
 brain region involved in emotional processing, was calmed.

By contrast, when the subjects picked appropriate names for the faces, the brain
scans revealed none of these changes—indicating that only emotional labeling 
makes a difference.
“In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light,
when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses,”

Lieberman said of his study, which is detailed in the current issue of Psychological Science. Understanding our emotions helps us overcome the power they hold over us and the anxiety they create. We can name them and tame them.

Try listening for the emotions behind the stories family and friends tell you. It is the most validating way we can support others and ourselves. It takes time and practice to learn how to identify our feelings underneath the anxiety in others and ourselves.

Remember the scenes in “Star Wars” where Luke was practicing over and over again with the light saber? Many times we may feel like we have missed the emotion as clearly as the man who shot his alarm clock instead of the fire alarm, but if you are sincerely trying to listen and understand, people are usually patient with you.

We all want to be understood. It is a skill well worth learning and it reduces anxiety.


Another tip—-Exercise helps:

Good article, but it does contain adult language:

Sources: Wenner, Melissa. “Live”, June 30, 2007

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Give Yourself a Present—Live in the Present: How staying in the moment frees you from anxiety and depression

The Present Is A Present


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The Past Can Hurt

In the Disney movie, “The Lion King”, Simba is whining to Rafiki claiming he is a victim of things gone wrong in his life. Rafiki counsels Simba to not focus on the pain of the past because it cannot changed. “It doesn’t matta, eets in dee pahst”,  is Rafiki’s advice. Simba listens to his advice and runs off the make amends in the present moment.


Forecasting The Future Ensured Our Survival 

As human beings we have the amazing ability to think about past, present and future.  From early man until now, this skill has helped us survive.  If primitive man saw a tiger, his experience in the past could help him determine the striped animal was a threat.  Thinking of the future, he would foresee an escape plan. And in the immediate here and now moment, his brain would activate and he would run.  This process ensured his survival.

An Over-Active Brain Exaggerates Threat

In modern times our brain can be over active in perceiving threats in the past or present. Our thoughts get caught up in a lot of drama that only exists in our heads.  In this process, we find ourselves dwelling over past situations or predicting catastrophes in the future.  We worry about tigers that may eat our family or tigers that may be lurking around every corner even when there are no signs of tigers.  Or we endlessly ruminate over bad decisions in the past about our last encounter with a tiger.

Our Thoughts Can Get Stuck

Our thoughts play on an endless loop of negative emotion creating anxiety or depression.  We can’t run.  We can’t act.  Depression and anxiety immobilize us.  So how do we get off this negative self-perpetuated track?  Recent research in the mental health field supports the practice of mindfulness as a tool.

Mindfulness Can Help 

Mindfulness is an Eastern religious tradition used recently in the West as a practice to slow your brain down, unwind your emotions and focus on the present moment.  Lao Tzu, a philosopher of ancient China said, “if you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious, you are living in the future, if you are at peace you are living in the present.

Mindfulness takes practice and patience.  It is helpful to be non critical about yourself as you practice the new skill. Mindfulness is about being observant and non judgmental.  It is normal for your mind to wander.  When you find yourself wandering, gently bring your attention back to what you wish to focus on.

Ways To Practice Mindfulness:

Music: Rock out listening to your favorite hard rock band or get caught up in the majesty of Beethoven 9th Symphony.

Scents: Light scented candles, wear an exotic perfume or bake aromatic chocolate chip cookies.  Smells have a power ability to trigger emotions and thoughts taking us out of the doldrums.

Body sensations (Exercise and Breathing) see my post on breathing:

Object focusing:  focus on one object exclusively.  Look at the size, texture, scent, and color of the objects appearance. If possible, taste the object.  Imagine other useful ways to use the object.  Try to keep your mind focused on the object for at least 5 minutes.

Scarlett O’ Hara doesn’t always give sage wisdom but I love the part in “Gone With The Wind” where she says, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think a Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 5.41.26 PM

about that tomorrow.”

There are advantages in staying in the present moment and not thinking about tomorrow’s problems. Like Simba if we get ruminate over the mistakes of the past, we become depressed.  If we are stuck forecasting the future, we become anxious.  Practice living in the moment for that is where happiness and peace are found.  We will have self esteem.

  Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW

Here is an interesting interview with famous quarterback, Steve Young where he talks about his struggle with anxiety (6.50 on the moniker).

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Childhood Anxiety: Helpful Hints for Parents and Caretakers

Do you know a fearful child suffering with anxiety?


Symptoms Of Anxiety

Children with anxiety had difficulties sleeping at night, making friends or trying new experiences. They are clingy and struggle with independence.  These children may bite their nails, wet the bed and need a high degree of reassurance. Some children are born extra sensitive, some have experienced trauma in their lives.  Regardless of the cause, these children can’t find personal peace and they can be very frustrating to their adult caretakers.

Tool Box

When an anxious child senses you are angry or frustrated with them their anxiety increases.  So what is a parent to do? Cheryl Erwin is a licensed marriage and family therapist who provides parent coaching, parent education, and professional training.  Here are her thoughts on anxiety and children: “Anxiety and related issues are the number-one presenting problem that brings children and teens to therapy–and it’s not surprising, given how anxious and overprotective so many parents are, and the nature of news coverage of disasters. With a child this age, I find it is most helpful to engage them in discovering what helps them feel better, and to create a “toolbox” of skills.

Worry Monster– What do their worries feel like? You might ask where in their body does the worry live? Does it have a color? A texture? * I often invite the child to help me draw the worries, or perhaps a “worry monster.” *

Validate: Anxiety does not respond to logic, so it isn’t helpful to tell kids “there’s nothing to worry about” or “that will never happen.” It is best to listen patiently and empathetically. Intelligent, articulate, creative children are often those who struggle most with anxiety because they can think ahead and instinctively know that the world can be a dangerous place. * Children’s worries are often about losing a parent, having someone they love get sick or die, fires, burglaries, guns, kidnapping, and intruders–things over which children have no control.

Wheel of Choices- It helps to validate their feelings without trying to “fix” them. (These ARE scary things!) * It can be helpful to teach children simple relaxation or mindfulness skills, such as breathing, focusing on sounds, or noticing body sensations while relaxing. You can brainstorm with them a “Worry Wheel of Choice” with things that help them feel safe and calm.

Safe Place– Music, exercise, simple visualizations, or just talking about it can be good suggestions. I often ask children where they feel most at peace and safe, then we learn to “go there” in our minds whenever we need to. *

Drawing- We often draw a box and call it the worry toolbox; then we “pack it” with skills the child has chosen. (Some kids bring in an actual box and we put paper or small objects in it to represent the tools.)

Their Solutions- It helps if the child is actively involved in creating these solutions. I once had a nine-year-old come to my office all excited because she’d created her own solution. She called it “BIRD”, which stood for things that helped her: breathing, imagination, reading, and drawing. She did much better after she learned to BIRD.

Another little guy’s dad had severe uncontrollable seizures; the parents were divorced, and this eight-year-old was often the person who had to call 911 for Dad and then give directions. He drew a “seizure monster” on the white board and shot it with Nerf arrows–every week for months. But it helped. He and Dad are both doing much better now. * Let them know that worry is a part of life and lots of people feel scared sometimes, including parents and teachers.

We may always have worries, but if we have a good toolbox (and people to talk to) we can always handle them.”

Great advice, thank you Cheryl. Check out her website for more tips and tools. Photo from: Another good site:

Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW

Contact Me: 801.472.7134/




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