When “Just Breathe” Isn’t Enough

It seems almost everyone is struggling right now in some way. I think it is safe to assume the COVID-19 global pandemic has brought major change to pretty much everyone in one aspect or another. For some the disruption is mere inconvenience, but for many the changes represent a major trauma. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, conditions are ripe for mental health challenges. Some of those challenges may bring intense emotions, intrusive thoughts, bodily discomfort, and possibly traumatic memories.  We’ve all been told to “just breathe” at one point or another. It can come across as diminishing or making light of the distressing feelings, as if it is a magic eraser or cure-all. While diaphragmatic breathing with mindfulness and intention can be quite effective, for some kinds of distress, it is not enough. The following are some exercises that can address disturbing thoughts, feelings, memories and bodily sensations/discomfort.

ENERGY SWIRL (Shapiro 2012)

Here is a technique that anyone can use.  It is from Francine Shapiro’s book, Getting Past Your Past:  Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy.  It is called the Spiral Technique (found on page 108).

 If you are experiencing upset or discomfort, try the following:

  1. Bring up an image that represents your discomfort.
  2. As you think of the image that represents it, notice where you feel the disturbance in your body.
  3. Now pretend that the feeling is “energy.”  If it was a spiral of energy, which direction is it moving in:  clockwise or counterclockwise?
  4. Now, with your mind, gently change the direction of the spiral in your body.  For instance, if it was originally moving clockwise, gently change it to counterclockwise.

Notice what happens to the feelings in your body.  For many people, their feelings will lessen as they change the direction of the spiral.  If one direction didn’t work, try the other direction and see if it lessens the disturbance.  If this has been helpful, practice this regularly so it becomes a stronger coping skill for you!

LIGHT STREAM (Shapiro 2012)

  1. Bring up some disturbing thought, feeling, memory or sensation and concentrate on the body sensations that accompany the disturbance. 
  2. Next bring a disturbing memory, situation, feeling, or sensation to mind and notice the resulting changes in the body sensations. 
  3. Now concentrate on the feeling in your body…. If the feeling had a shape what would it be? 
  4. And if it had a size, color, temperature, texture (exp. prickly), and sound (high or low pitch), what would it be?
  5. Which of your favorite colors might you associate with healing? 
  6. Imagine that this favorite colored light is coming in through the top of your head and directing itself at the shape in your body. Let’s pretend that the source of this light is the cosmos: The more you see, the more you have available. The light directs itself at the shape and penetrates it, resonating and vibrating in and around it. As it does, what happens to the shape, size, or color?
  7. As the light continues to direct itself to that area, you can allow the light to come in gently and easily fill your entire head. Now allow it to descend through your neck, into your shoulders, and down your arms into your hands and out your fingertips. Now allow it to come down your neck and into the trunk, fill your body, easily and gently. Now allow it to descend through your buttocks into your legs, streaming down your legs and flowing out through your heel. 
  8. Lastly, I’d like to ask you to become awake and aware on the count of five, four, three, two, one…


The following is an exercise that can help regulate the nervous system, which can either become underactive (depression) or overactive (fight/flight/freeze) during times of distress. Toning the vagus nerve also activates the “social engagement” reward center in the brain, which we can all use right now.

  1. Lie down or sit upright comfortably in a chair with support.
  2. Gently roll your head and stretch your neck side to side, noticing and tension or pain.
  3. Interlock your fingers and cradle the back of your head at the base of your skull, supporting it as you remain facing forward.
  4. Moving only your eyes, look up and to the right as far as you can (may be some mild discomfort) and hold this position 30-60 seconds at a minimum, until you notice a sigh, yawn or swallow. This is a release of tension. You may feel a sensation of calm trickle down from your head like a waterfall.
  5. Once you notice this shift, come back to center.
  6. Repeat on the left side until you notice this same shift.
  7. Come back to center, take a deep cleansing breath. 
  8. Rotate your head and stretch your neck, noticing how it feels differently than it felt in the beginning.

(If you feel slightly dizzy, this is normal. It means you fully relaxed and your blood pressure dropped. Take a moment for this to subside before standing)


This guided meditation script is a popular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) exercise designed to diffuse negative thoughts. 

Leaves on a stream Guided Meditation Script

Imagine you are sitting or standing in the middle of a stream. 

The water is flowing away in front of you. 

Notice if there is any sound from the running water.

Notice if there are any trees, etc. on the banks of the stream.

Now see leaves floating down the stream away from you.

They can be any shape, color, or size. 

As the negative thoughts come into your mind, 

be aware of what the thought is, 

and then place it on a leaf.

Now watch it float away down the stream.

Do this with each thought as you notice it and for as long you like until you feel better.

As you acknowledge each of your thoughts,

you do not need to hang onto them. 

There is no need to become attached to the thought. 

Just acknowledge it and then place it on a leaf.
By watching it float away, it loses its hold on you and its intensity.

For more information on these techniques and others please check out:

  • Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. Emmaus, Pa: Rodale Books.
  • Rosenberg, S. (2017). Accessing the healing power of the Vagus Nerve. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
  • Walser PhD, R. (2007). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma Related Problems. New Harbinger Publications.

If you find that your symptoms are unmanageable through these or other exercises, perhaps seeking the assistance of a licensed professional may be necessary. Most mental health professionals are offering telehealth services due to social distancing. TriWellness clinicians continue to offer services utilizing HIPAA compliant teletherapy services, contact us to schedule a free brief phone consultation today.

This article was written by Tonya Nowlin, MA, LPC. To learn more about Tonya please visit her bio.

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