I learned this breath focused meditation technique from the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. Kelly also wrote the book The Upside of Stress which I recommend you read if you haven’t already. You can watch Kelly’s TED talk about the upside of stress here.


Breath focus

Breath focus is a simple but powerful meditation technique for reducing anxiety by teaching the mind how to handle worry thoughts.


A powerful meditation technique

Here’s how to perform the technique:

1. Sit still and rest
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground or sit cross-legged on a cushion. Sit up straight and rest your hands in your lap. It’s important not to fidget when you meditate—that’s the physical foundation of self-control. If you notice the instinct to scratch an itch, adjust your arms, or cross and uncross your legs, see if you can feel the urge but not follow it. This simple act of staying still is part of what makes meditation willpower training effective. You’re learning not to automatically follow every single impulse that your brain and body produce.

2. Turn your attention to the breath
Close your eyes or, if you are worried about falling asleep, focus your gaze at a single spot on the wall. Tune into your breathing. Silently say in your mind “inhale” as you breathe in and “exhale” as you breathe out. When you notice your mind wandering (and it will), just bring it back to the breath. This practice of coming back to the breath, again and again, kicks the prefrontal cortex into high gear and quietens the survival operating system. It helps you to get into the habit of consciously disconnecting from worry thoughts.

3. Notice how it feels to breathe and notice how the mind wanders.
After a few minutes, drop the labels “inhale/exhale.” Now focus just on the feeling of breathing. You might notice the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of your nose and mouth. You might sense the belly or chest expanding as you breathe in and, deflating as you breathe out. 
Your mind might wander a bit more without the labelling. Just as before, when you notice yourself thinking about something else, bring your attention back to the breath. If you need help refocusing, bring yourself back to the breath by saying “inhale” and “exhale” for a few rounds. This part of the practice trains self-awareness along with self-control.


Practice, practice, practice

To get the benefits of this meditation exercise you need to practice it. Start with five minutes a day. When this becomes a habit, move to ten to fifteen minutes a day. If that starts to feel like a burden, bring it back down to five. A short meditation practice that you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off to tomorrow. It may help you to pick a specific time that you’ll meditate every day, like right before your morning shower. If this is impossible, staying flexible will help you fit it in when you can.

Important: Meditation is not about getting rid of all your worry thoughts; it’s learning not to get so lost in them. Don’t worry if your focus isn’t perfect when meditating. Just practice coming back to the breath, again and again.

Source: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal PhD


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