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Breathing, Imagery and emotions

July 16, 2016 • Lisa Perry

Everyone knows that our emotions and our breathing is connected. We’re often advised to “take a deep breathe” when we are upset. Classes in Yoga and meditation have sprung up everywhere we look. But very often, we are given seemingly simple advice to “just breathe” and we don’t know exactly where to go with that.

About 15 years ago, I was taught a simple breathing exercise by a singing instructor. Over the next few days, after practicing this way of breathing, I experienced very strong memories and emotions. I developed a severe sore throat and I even came down with bronchitis. I had no idea what was happening to me. Although very unpleasant at the time, this experience led me down a very positive and life changing path.

How we feel affects how we breathe

We sense that how we feel affects how we breathe. We take note of more rapid and shallow breathe when we feel anxious. When shocked or surprised, we may suddenly suck in our breath. When frightened, we may hold our breath. When tired, we widen our breath into a yawn. We may sigh when exasperated or relieved. Strong reactions like nausea, fury, sexual stimulation – all evoke changes in breathing.

How we feel affects how we hold ourselves

Our emotional reactions greatly influence our body in other ways as well. Our muscles tense and relax and form different postures in relation to how we feel about ourselves and others. We may find ourselves stiff and tight or more relaxed and flexible. Our posture may be leaning towards or contracting away from a particular person or situation.

How we use imagery can change our breathing

We can focus our attention and use our imagination to influence how we hold our body. Any muscle that we focus upon can be relaxed and/or tensed. In doing so, we can change the shape of the instrument that our body breathes through. For example, just like we can choose to squeeze and then relax our fist, we can also choose to squeeze and then relax other muscles that support breathing. We can experiment with muscles in our stomach, chest, back, sides, neck, throat, shoulders, pelvic floor, etc.

We can create more subtle shapes and varying levels of tension with more holistic images. If we use our imagination, we can breathe through so many different shapes and sizes. If we use our imagination, we can breathe into and touch many parts of the body that may normally be guarded and protected.

Culture and Breathing

I remember learning about a tribe that believed their lungs were in their thighs. Could you imagine how they might have experienced their breathing? I dare you to walk around for a while and try this out for yourself! It really is quite astounding.

For purposes of survival and to fit into our societies, most of us have learned to hold ourselves in ways that can be habitual and limiting. Most of this is not in our awareness. We just walk around the way we do. We just hold ourselves the way we do.

If you were to observe an infant, you might notice the way they breathe is very different than the way we have learned to breathe. For example, have you ever noticed the uninhibited expansion and contraction of the belly? How many among us fly so freely as we “mature”?

Breathing the tube

Imagine you have swallowed a very flexible and malleable tube that extends from your mouth through to your “bottom”. (See how my words are affected by culture here?) This tube can have different lengths and widths. You can tighten it to make it rigid or breath into it to expand it outwards like a balloon. Try out some different images:

Piccolo or Flute – Shorter or longer and very narrow.

Saxophone – Very long and very wide.

Breathing and Emotion

When you have some quiet time, allow yourself to really breathe the entire instrument of your body. You can play with different images. When we explore different ways of breathing our body, we wind up expanding into areas that we don’t typically reach. Sometimes this can bring up different emotions.

For instance, you can imagine your body is like an accordion. The accordion can start in the position of a fully exhaled rigid structure. In this position, your body is more collapsed inward and there is limited space to breathe from. Notice what this feels like. Does it remind you of anything?

You can imagine this accordion expands all the way to its widest and fullest position. You can breathe your entire body, noticing what every nook and cranny feels like. What does it feel like to breathe all the way into your back? What is it like to expand your mid chest fully? What it is like to explore the dimensions of your body 360 degrees around like you are a full sphere?

If you are feeling courageous, playful or just plain curious, you can expand the breathing into sound. You are now playing the instrument you had been breathing. When we vocalize we:

  • extend the breath out more fully
  • experience more vibration and felt sensations
  • engage another part of our brain where emotions lie even more closely

So, next time someone tells you to “just breathe”, you might have some more ideas about how to do that!

Lisa T Perry Counseling in AshvilleLisa T Perry, MEd, LPC, CCMHC, VMT-R is a Licensed Professional Counselor who simple cannot separate emotion from the body. She likes to incorporate breath-work productively into her counseling work.














Stress Management and The Serenity Prayer

July 16, 2016 • Lisa Perry • Image

Somewhere along the line, whether you are religious or not, you have probably heard of the Serenity Prayer.  Many are familiar with The Serenity Prayer from attending 12-step meetings. It can be a powerful “tool” for dealing with addiction. It occurred to me, when I broke down the basic components of this well-known prayer, that you can also use it as a means for Stress Management.

The best-known form of this prayer, according to Wikipedia is:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

Breaking down the Serenity Prayer

If you look at the Serenity Prayer and consider its basic elements, dealing with Stress boils down to following one of two paths:

  1. Accepting what cannot be changed and
  2. Taking action on what can be changed

Of course (also referenced in the prayer) life’s challenges are not always so simple. Mustering our courage is required. Also, it is not always so clear which one of these paths we need to take.

Dealing with the Stress – that is within my control

Most of us are more comfortable dealing with the type of stress that is within our control. Even if I don’t feel like cleaning my bathroom, at least I know I can do it. It’s comforting to know that technically I can take care of this, if I choose to do so.  And if I don’t yet know how to do something, at least I can try to learn how to do it.

Dealing with the Stress – that is not within my control

Dealing with the type of Stress that is not within our control, usually requires some kind of emotion management. This may involve grieving. It may involve “letting go”. Maybe I have to figure out how to accept something that I find intolerable. This is not as easy as putting something on my “to do” list.

Telling the difference

Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed or confused that we don’t even know whether or not something is within our control. How can we tell the difference, if we are so used to approaching life in a very certain way?

Stress Management Habits


Most of us have habits or tendencies for dealing with stress. Some of us are used to problem-solving or taking care of practical things. Some of us are “fixers”. But what happens when the thing “to fix” is not within our control?

  • I can’t control the mood of another.
  • I can’t wish away the results of a test.
  • I can’t prevent a hurricane from hitting my town.

We can’t simply “fix” everything! We can try, but usually when and if we do try, we run into problems. What if she doesn’t want our help? What if he sees things differently than I do? I might waste all of my energy in the wrong direction.


We might be used to “trusting” that problems fix themselves.  Perhaps we got used to living with someone who takes care of all the practical stuff. What if we have gotten away without consequences for inaction? Suddenly (or not so suddenly) we are faced with the reality that no one else is going to take care of this situation. The consequence is falling on me and it’s falling hard now! The peace of not having had to plan is now gone. I might have to do this myself. I might have to do some research. I might have to learn a new skill. I might have to face one of my greatest fears. I might have to admit to myself that someone else had been taking care of this for a long time. Now what do I do with this this new awareness?

Using a Stress Management Model

So, next time you are dealing with something that is really stressing you out, start reducing your stress by:

  • Taking out a sheet of paper.
  • Brainstorming all aspects of this situation that is stressing you out.
  • Determining which items on the list are within your control.
  • Determining which items on the list are not within your control.

If you need additional assistance in managing life’s stresses, you can always reach out for help!

Lisa T Perry Counseling in AshvilleLisa T Perry, MEd, LPC, CCMHC, VMT-R is Licensed Professional Counselor, who loves working with people who are stressed out and need assistance.

Categories: Anxiety