When you’re anxious, one of the best things you can do is slow down and focus on your breath. But what can you do when you’re so anxious or worried that this doesn’t work or simply feels impossible to do?
Below, I’ll share a simple but effective trick that brings in more of your senses and helps cut through the anxiety so you can access more calm and focus.
But first, a quick look at the science behind worry and anxiety.
There’s a part of your prefrontal cortex — the thinking and planning part of your brain — that is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or dlPFC for short. It is toward the front and side of your brain. The dlPFC has been shown to be important for working memory; basically, it holds information for you to use right now. You rely on it when someone tells you a phone number and you repeat it to yourself as you prepare to dial, or when you take mental note of the items you need to pick up at the grocery store in the next few minutes.
If you’re really worried about something, that worry thinking takes up space in your working memory. You can compare your dlPFC to the RAM of your computer. If your computer has a lot of RAM, you can run a bunch of programs at the same time. If it doesn’t have that much, it gets slower as you use up the space, signaled by the spinning wheel of “Hey, you are overtaxing me right now.” Eventually, it crashes if you keep pushing.
So how can you free up that space and get your brain working more effectively?
Mindfulness practices can get your thinking brain back online, but doing them can sometimes be really challenging. You might try to bring your awareness to your breath or your feet, but if your working memory is filled with worry thoughts, this effort can feel forced or just not enough to help your mind and body calm down.
So here’s a little exercise to use to reboot that RAM in your brain: It’s called five finger breathing.
Step 1: Place the index finger of one hand on the outside of the pinky finger on your other hand. As you breathe in, trace up to the tip of your pinky, and as you breathe out, trace down the inside of your pinky.
Step 2: On your next inhale, trace up the outside of your ring finger, and on the exhale, trace down the inside of your ring finger.
Step 3: Inhale and trace up the outside of your middle finger; exhale and trace down the inside of your middle finger.
Step 4: Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand.
Step 5: Reverse the process and trace from your thumb back to your pinky.
Five finger breathing is great, because it brings several of your senses together at the same time. You’re watching and feeling your fingers while you’re paying attention to your breath. This not only requires awareness of multiple senses (seeing and feeling) but an awareness of multiple locations in your body (your two fingers, your two hands and your lungs).
When you’re able to use up your RAM with multi-sensory and multi-location awareness, you can forget what you’re worrying about, even if it’s for a few moments. As you do this, you’re also calming your physiology down, so if those thoughts come back, they won’t be as convincing because they won’t have the same emotional tone. Without that arousal, they have less weight behind them and they’re easier to let go of or not react to.
If you have children in your life, I encourage you to teach them five finger breathing. Then, practice together. You can do this before each meal, before nap time, before bed or during other transition points within the day.
If you notice that you’re starting to get worked up during the day, take a moment to express how you’re feeling. You could say, “Oh, I’m a little stressed right now.” Then enlist your kids’ help, which will empower them, and ask them: “Can you help me calm down by leading me in a five finger breathing?”
If you don’t have kids or live alone, no worries. Just let your inner child help and guide you.
This article originally appeared in Elemental.
Watch Judson Brewer’s TEDMED Talk here: