I’m a wholly neurotic, frenetic A-class example of an A-type. If you’re an A-type too (I know a few of you follow me on this blog) you’ll be with me on this: We know we need to let go, release our grip and chill the fork out, but…it requires clever trickery.

The view over the valley at Gwinganna. (Photo by Jo Foster.)
The view over the valley at Gwinganna. (Photo by Jo Foster.)

Indeed, it’s our very A-typeness – our ability to apply clever techniques – that gets us to something approximating “letting go”, usually via our body. And this is fine. So fine.

One of my tricks when I’m due for some letting go is to force myself into lockdown. I’ve escaped to a tin shed in the forest, plunged into remote wilderness on my own for a few weeks, and disappeared to a Hare Krishna camp.  The last few days before I left Australia I was locked down in a wellness retreat (for those of you wondering, there’s only one that I recommend. I have done for a number of years, freely and with conviction – Gwinganna in the Gold Coast hinterland. Their principles are sound and their care true).

I don’t like retreats (Groups! Organized activities! Being told what to do! Touchy feelyness! Eek!). But my A-type brain knows when something has to be done about something.

In this case, that something was chronic exhaustion ahead of a six-week book tour in America and UK. I needed boundaries and bush and calm and no internet and, yes, a bit of touchy feeliness.

But none of this is my point. My point is sharing a trick for letting go I came across in a group (!) breathing exercise one evening, led by Paul. You can use breath to let go. It’s a great trick. We all know how it goes. But there was a pearler I drifted away with. Here’s how it goes:

Lie down. Breath in. Now breath out to a count of five. Hold for five. Release. Nothing more.

The trick – that my A-type brain came up with when I was meant to be letting go – is to not count your breath in. Counting controls it. You let yourself breath in naturally, which you just will after holding for five. And then you let go, which you just will after breathing naturally.

Try it now, sitting if you like. If your co-workers aren’t watching, shut your eyes.

Why does it work?

In this simple moment of naturalness we tap into…well, our naturalness. No effort. Getting out of the way. It transfers, and we let go.

This natural in-breath (the way we’re meant to do it) also – naturally – sees us breath deep into our belly (the way we’re meant to do it). This – as many of us know – activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Most of us spend our lives breathing into our chest, with our hunched shoulders and taute bellies, ready to fly or fight.

This simple moment of not controlling also transfers. It feels nice. We go with it. It spreads beyond the breath to the rest of our being.

As Paul pointed out, too, when you hold your breath (in a soft way), your brain gets occupied in the counting and gets out of the way.

Oh, and this: the tension (holding the breath) before the release accentuates the value and loveliness of the release (the natural in-breath). It’s a little like my “sprint-rest” theory, also geared at A-types.

I’ve always struggled with breathing exercises. I realize it was the breathing in bit. It always felt so forced and created tension. Too much control, no release, no contrast.

A-types need contrast. Lucky we’re good with tricks.

If you’re an A-type you might like to share your take…?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Hilary

    The slow breathe out and the holding builds tone in the vagus nerve, which is about as thick as your thumb and has a massive amount to do with inflammation, gut, heart and lungs plus stuff like anxiety. Stephen W Porges is a key innovator with his Polyvagal Theory…can google him for some awesome interviews, both video and printed.
    I also use TRE (tension and trauma releasing exercises) at home to help “let go”. There are plenty of videos relating to this too. Created by David Berceli.

    • Hilary, I’ll look into these…vegus nerve stuff really interests me

  • I am a huge fan of this simple breathing exercise…it’s nice to know there are techniques we can use that really work. Also a Type A personality, the challenge to slow down is ever present. Thanks Sarah. Xx

  • Alex Le Fevre

    Sorry.. A-type?

      • Alex Le Fevre

        Thanks Jessica! It seems like quite a broad definition – the majority of the indicators could probably apply to the entire population at one point or another. I suppose it would be pretty obvious if you were a serious type A though, I certainly think I know a few! 😉

        These are still all interesting relaxation/present moment techniques!

        • Lol yes I agree that you would know if you are Type A or if you have met someone who is 🙂

  • Elli

    Huh, awesome!!!! I never do the “breathing” thing when I’m anxious because I too find it too controlling/doesn’t work for me – I try too hard in getting the in for 5 out for 5 thing exactly at the “right” time( being a type A) so feels inauthentic i guess….It was just yesterday though when I just couldn’t get a decent breath in ( was breathing very shallow all day) so I knew it was time to relax and concentrate in breathing deeply and slowly but didn’t work!!!!!!!!!! Just tried this and yep, it was soo ,much better in allowing me to let go and get that deep belly breath. Thank you!! and yep, don’t you luv when things show up when u need it!!!

  • Lauren Rose

    I like to repeat a mantra as I breathe, “I am calm. I am content.” Something to that effect, seems to work for me, coupled with slow, deep breathing. Kudos for sharing, SW.

  • Ross H

    Yep – the breathing thing does work. As a dedicated A-type anal retentive, I also find shoving in the earbud earphones and blocking everything out with good tunes can help. I am already a compulsive journaller (is there such a word?) but my shrink has me taking a more methodological approach to aspects of the journal which is pretty much ideal for the A-TAR like me.

    Hope you’re hanging in there, Sarah!

  • Zoe

    Yes! I’ve been doing this since the HSC when a school counsellor of all people recommended trying it. That tension and release is one of those things that forces me to slow down and focus on nothing else but the breathing.

  • Randall

    Gwinganna is magical!

  • Yup we definitely are good with tricks! I think my life’s work has been centred around harnessing my Type A-ness while also learning to identify more quickly when I need to chill things down long enough to recharge. And figuring out the tricks that will allow me to recharge without my brain realising what’s being done!

    But I love this breathing trick! You are so right – the simple act of breathing in and filling your abdomen is divine but doing it to a count – not divine. Borderline anxiety provoking!

  • rachmonkey

    breathe “out with stress…in with love”. simple. I literally could not get my breath, or ever feel fully relaxed, for about 6 months when I was first ill and eventually diagnosed with rr Multiple Sclerosis. Breathing only in your upper diaphragm is so bad for you – physically and emotionally. this is a great exercise. You have reminded me Sarah. thanks and keep writing. 🙂

  • ShaeMaree

    Omg that’s awesome! I have also struggled with the “forced” in-breath that counting seems to create. This technique feels great and I can immediately notice the difference on both my anxiety levels and the tightness of my chest. Forever grateful x

    • OOOOOhhhh, glad!

      • Woohoo! Allow the in, manage the out. We do it every time we sing. Sing songs while you’re hiking up a steep hill, time your breath to the beat of your feet and endeavour to breathe out for 1-2 counts longer than your in-breath. You’ll go longer, stronger and be amazed how fit you actually are when your breathing isn’t slowing you down.

  • Clare Walpole

    I saw the author of ‘sex, drugs and meditation’ spek at woodford and she shared the same technique, best one I’ve come across! I also like the Buddhist meditation in which you press one side of your nose with your finger whilst breathing through the other side of your nose, then you hold your nose (hold your breath) for a few seconds and release through the other nostril

  • Anthony

    I like that breathing trick, Sarah. Now a trick for you that I learnt some time ago. When we are under pressure, tired or even angry, our breathing tends to be faster and higher in our chest. When this happens breathe in as if you are breathing from down low in your stomach. It slows everything down.

  • Diana

    I’m confused, you breath out for five and THEN hold? On empty? Or do you maybe hold breath in BEFORE breath out? Please confirm. Many thanks

    • Yep you hold on empty…nice and relaxed and still. Not forced.

  • I’m going to have to master this. I need to.. Thanks for sharing!

  • This works, I love it. I always hear – you should take deep breathes. I have never been good at this, but this works. Thanks x

    • i’m glad x

      • I’m glad too! Listen to your intuition PuraVida… a vacuum is created automagically on the out-breath, therefore the in-breath does itself. (a well used phrase from the world of Alexander Technique)

  • I cannot believe how relaxed and well I felt after that breathing exercise. I had to do it over and over again to be sure I wasn’t simply imagining the relaxation. I’m a typical type A personality; goals and keeping busy and delayed gratification are part of my daily routine. I am therefore almost always on edge, struggling to let go and ensuring I have control over everything I possibly can (with several attempts at controlling what I couldn’t/can’t). Guilt and fear and insecurity are issues I have started learning to put away because they are exhausting and often unnecessary obstacles I erect myself. It feels great to have learned, through faith and amazing friends, that life is beautiful and worth so much more than struggling all the time. Purposefully investing in meaningful relationships have taught me this valuable lesson more than anything.

    • Hey Sharon, You can do it over and over… but as a fellow A-typer I know you’ll get bored of that pretty quickly too 😉 Try doing it for longer. That is, hold for 10, or 15 or more. You’ll have no trouble clearing your mind when oxygen is the priority… and as for letting go, the rush of air inwards is one of the biggest “let go’s” you can experience.

      • Paul, you’re right! It feels great to be able to clear my head for a couple of seconds every few hours. It’s now a sort of relaxation routine I’m developing, I guess.

  • Bianca

    Long-time lurker popping in to say: This! Yes! A few years ago I was struggling with exhaustion and panic attacks (compounded by that ole’ A-type intensity) and a counsellor taught me a breathing trick very similar to this for times of intense stress – inhale 1 sec, hold 1 sec, exhale 1 sec, hold 1 sec, inhale 2 sec, hold 2 sec, exhale 2 sec, hold 2 sec, inhale 3 sec… and so on until you read 10 seconds.

    My chronic tension headaches vanished. It was incredible. I still use it every time I feel nervous or stressed, and it works better than anything else I’ve tried. A tip if this works for you – pop a post-it saying ‘B’ on your laptop or a note on the home screen of your phone so that everytime you read it, you practice mindful breathing. It changes everything.

  • Stacey

    Sarah this works beautifully for me. I recently learned about Wim Hof, the Iceman who can withstand extreme cold with no effort, and for him it’s very much about breathing. I believe he uses this kind of ‘holding the breath out before letting go and naturally filling your lungs’. I’ve begun reading his book, so will learn more about this soon.

    I’m enjoying your take on things, and lovely your authentic Australian-ness. Just finishing my first book, and it made me realise how I toned down my Australian-ness to try and make it more international. I won’t do that next time, thanks to your inspiration.

  • Model Hideout

    Loved this post. As a fellow type A I always found Yoga challenging. Not from a physical sense (as an ex dancer the bending and stretching was easy) but from a mental sense. Whilst everyone else was chanting and breathing I was going through my to do list and wishing the class would hurry up and finish so I could get back to my list.
    New Years resolution = enjoy the now and stop rushing to plan the future

    Great blog!

  • This so me! Really helpful, thanks! 😀