Cats, Kardashians, cartoon memes — our love of GIFs runs far and deep. And who can blame us? They’re mesmerizing and seem to have direct access to the emotional center (and the funny bone) of our brains.
But now, GIFs are playing a surprising role as a relaxation tool.
Whether your suffer from anxiety, panic attacks or are just stressed to the point that you feel out of control, you now have a new way to calm down. The just-can’t-turn-away power of these pint-size animations may be exactly what you need to focus on your breath and relax your mind. And they can even teach you a thing or two about how to inhale and exhale and combat stress.
But First… Your Body on Stress
How can just a few deep breaths make a difference? When you’re stressed or on the verge of a panic attack, your body responds as if it’s being attacked. Your heart pounds. You breathe faster. Adrenaline courses through your veins. According to Dr. Robert Duff, a Southern California-based psychologist and author of the Hardcore Self Help book series, your sympathetic nervous system boosts into overdrive even though you’re not in physical danger.
To undo this effect, you need your parasympathetic nervous system. “It reverses the actions of [the sympathetic nervous system] and brings you down a few notches. It cleans up the mess,” says Dr. Duff. The best way to kick the relaxation mechanism into gear? Deep breathing.
“Breathing deeply is fundamentally incompatible with physical anxiety,” he says. “When you breathe deeply, you take in more oxygen. It brings down your heart rate and calms down everything in your body.”
Breathing techniques are also the cornerstone of meditation practices. “It’s something that you’re already doing during the day,” says Lodro Rinzler, author, Chief Spirituality Officer of MNDFL, a meditation studio in New York City, and meditation teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. “When we learn to be present with the breath, we learn to be more present throughout the entire day, when it’s good and when it’s bad. You’re training your mind to stay with that feeling rather than getting frazzled by it.”
Next Up… Take a Deep Breath
Inhale. Exhale. Sounds easy enough, right? Not quite.
“The relaxation response — that feeling of breathing deeply and then your body following suit and slowing down — that response takes practice,” says Dr. Duff. “Practice deep breathing when you’re not stressed,” he says. “If the first time you try it is when you’re already having a panic attack, you’re going to wonder why it’s not working. And you’ll get more stressed about it.”
Dr. Duff recommends practicing for a few minutes three times a week when you’re calm. Try a few different techniques to find the one that works best for you. One simple technique that Rinzler recommends is breathing in through the nose for a count of three and exhaling out the mouth for a count of three. Dr. Duff also likes a number-based technique — inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of seven and exhale to a count of eight.
Or… Cue These 4 GIFs
If you’re having trouble getting started or staying focused, a breathing GIF may help. (And yes, there’s an app for that, too.) Here are four relaxation-inducing GIFs to help you dial down the tension with breathing exercises.
1. Get guided.
While breathing is something our bodies do automatically, practicing how to breathe can be anxiety-inducing. “It’s stressful to think you have to learn this new skill and you have to know how to do it on your own,” says Dr. Duff. “It’s almost like homework.” And let’s face it, homework is basically synonymous with stress!
To help you have greater control over your breathing, this GIF acts like a visual how-to guide and makes it easier to learn the technique. “It’s passive learning and you can just reap the benefits of it,” he says.
2. Count your breaths.
One of the most basic breathing practices is to count your inhalations and exhalations. You just count. And for many, that simple act allows your body to begin to relax. “You’re focusing on the numbers and for a lot of people, that gets them out of their head,” says Dr. Duff. As a result, you’re less apt to worry about whether you’re doing it wrong or if it’s working. Follow the pattern in the GIF – inhale to a count of 7 and exhale to a count of 11. Or try something as simple as inhaling and exhaling, both to a count of four.
3. Create a visual mantra.
Aside from guiding you through breathing techniques, GIFs can also help reinforce your new healthy habit. “It builds an association with a specific image. It’s like a visual mantra,” says Dr. Duff. “If you practice with one, you start to build that memory in your body over time.” Cue up one of these images when you’re feeling overwhelmed and your body will know it’s time to chill out.
4. Get hypnotized.
It’s hard not to relax when you look at this infinity circle going around and around and around. By giving you something spellbinding to focus on, images like this are another way to silence the monkey mind.
The Limitation GIPHY Breathing Exercises
While technology makes it convenient to have these relaxation GIFs right at our fingertips, Rinzler reminds us these are just tools. “If it helps stabilize an experience, great. But I don’t want people to rely on technology to be able to [relax],” he says.
“If you find you have to use [the GIFs] all the time, it might mean it’s time to look a little deeper. Maybe it’s time to get some counseling, go to a group or talk to somebody about why this is coming up so frequently for you and address the source,” says Dr. Duff. “Just in the same way you wouldn’t want to take pain medication without addressing why you’re in pain, you don’t want to do that with coping mechanisms either.”