Try this simple 5 finger breathing exercise that you can do anywhere. (I do it in the dentist’s chair). Hold one hand in front of you with your fingers spread apart. Now slowly drag the outside of your hand with the index finger of your other hand, inhaling as you pull one finger up and exhaling as you pull down. Raise and lower all five fingers. When you’ve traced your entire hand, reverse direction and repeat the process. Here is an animation video that will help you.
Why are you doing it?
This multisensory meditation practice was popularized by Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Center for Mindfulness and author of the new book Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. Brewer, who is also a neuroscientist, says it’s important to remember that the brain is like a computer and has only one working memory. Fear, worry, and other negative emotions can gain the upper hand, leaving the brain with less room for other tasks that require thought and problem-solving.
“Our thinking brain, the part of the brain that’s supposed to help us solve problems, doesn’t work when we’re stressed,” says Brewer. “The first thing we have to do is land in the present moment to calm down.”
Brewer suggests five-finger breathing because it is a multi-sensory task. When you look at your hand and run along your fingers, you have included both sight and touch in both hands. You are also focusing on your breath, which leaves very little room in your brain for negative thoughts.
“Five-finger breathing restarts the computer,” says Brewer. “It takes so many sensory modalities for that that people tend to calm down quite a bit.”
Of course, your negative thoughts can return when you finish five-finger meditation, but calming your emotional state can help keep these thoughts from getting out of hand. “If that worrying thought returns, it doesn’t now match your emotional intensity,” Brewer said. “You can see the worried thought and not get caught up in it. When you’re calm, worrying thoughts aren’t as sticky as when your physiology is racing. “
Another quick calming trick Brewer recommends is the Feel Your Feet exercise. When you’re feeling stressed or just needing a conscious break from work, take a moment to focus on your feet. How do your feet feel right now? Are they hot, cold, sweaty, tingly or dry? Do you feel one foot differently than the other?
Brewer calls feet “fear-free zones”.
“We tend not to keep fear on our feet,” he says. “You can also feel the earth connection. When someone stands or sits in a chair, the feeling of their feet makes them feel more connected to the floor.
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, the award-winning consumer health website of the New York Times. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series Life, Interrupted and is the author of For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. @taraparkerpope