Whenever someone is upset, the first thing people say to them is to take a deep breath. While this might help a lot of people gain composure, it’s not the best thing for everyone. A trauma-informed strength coach, Laura Khoudari, recently explained why. She said,
“I work as a beginning strength coach with the general population in New York City, and I can tell you that for the most part, New Yorkers are a bunch of chest-breathers hustling and living in a very stimulating environment. It is common for people living with trauma, or simply with a lot of stress, to be stuck in a defensive state — fight or flight. Their trunks are always bracing just a little, and that diaphragm rarely gets the chance to move.”
In these cases, breathing deeply can actually make things worse for someone who is always upset.
So what should someone do to calm down? There is no way to know if a person has breathing or trauma issues and the recommendation to take deep breaths is given out of compassion. Still, it may be a good idea to ask if breathing deeply might be helpful.
She also offered some tips that people can use to calm down, instead of taking deep breaths, her suggestions were,
Focus on a part of the body that feels neutral.
“When I began to incorporate mindfulness meditation into my own treatment, I realized that the only place that felt safe to focus on was my hands. So that’s where I started.”
Name five things.
“For clients who cannot ground by looking inward, I ask them to become situated and present by looking around and naming five blue things, five red things, and five yellow things. It gets people to closely look at their environment and keeps their prefrontal cortex turned on as opposed to triggering an emotionally reactive limbic response.”
Listen to sounds near and far.
She also suggests being considerate and aware of the things in their environment. She said,
If I am encouraging someone to turn inward, I will ask the person to first listen for sounds far away — people talking outside, wind, cars — and then closer sounds like water running through the pipes or cooking sounds in the kitchen, and then even sounds from inside of that person’s own body. If I am trying to bring someone’s awareness back outside of the body, I encourage the same process but in reverse — starting nearby and opening up to sounds far away.
Follow the breath rather than trying to control it.
“If the breath is the main driver of your practice, like in yoga or certain mindfulness meditation practices, you can follow the breath without manipulation. By being behind the breath (following it), the constriction can feel less stifling than being on top of it (focusing on it). But please keep in mind that for some people, following or focusing on the breath is a goal to be worked toward, not a tool to be employed right in that moment.”
When you get upset or see someone upset, you will likely try to do your best to take control of the situation.
If you have always heard that deep breathing is the way to do that, that will be your first thought. Thanks to Khoudari, we now know that there may be better ways to that can be just as effective.
Deep breathing may work for some people, but not everyone. If it works for you, use it. If it doesn’t work for you or if you have found that it makes things worse, try on of the other methods that she suggests. Everyone is different, and it’s important to consider that when you are trying to help someone who is upset, but may have other issues that you can’t see on the outside too.
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