Breathing. When someone is feeling stressed, having an anxiety attack, going through some physically taxing life event or freaking out about something – the advice so often is ‘just breathe’.
Breathing is the absolute hallmark of life. We all do it, all day, everyday. In fact, an adult at rest breathes about 20,000 breathes per day. That is a lot of breaths!
I wonder how many of them you actually notice?
Interestingly, many of you are probably very rarely focused on, or even aware of your breathing moment to moment. And honestly, being too focused on your breath too often, can actually be quite unhelpful.
If you are too fixated on your breath and changes in your breathing and this makes you feel uncomfortable or scared, it may be that you are suffering anxiety. Our breathing changes when we are anxious, it becomes shorter and more shallow and laboured. Indeed if someone is having a panic attack they often tell themselves that these changes to their breathing are dangerous, which makes them feel more scared, creating a spiral of worsening anxiety, yuk. If you have had the unpleasant experience of feeling like this before, you may now find you are more acutely aware of your breathing and changes to your breathing because you on alert for the anxiety coming back and you are trying to avoid it. This type of fear-induced fixation on breathing is not helpful. It makes you feel scared of your breath, when we are trying to develop the absolute opposite – breath as a calm, safe sanctuary for you to feel grounded and in control.
There is a great deal of value in understanding when it is helpful to bring conscious awareness to your breath and to have some skills for using your breath to regulate your emotions, ground you in the present and give you an anchor to build mental resilience.
A first step to using breathing as a helpful psychological tool, is to learn that there is a ‘best’ way to breath. If you are using breathing as a way to settle yourself when you are feeling distressed, or to try to bring some calm to your mind and life, then it is worth learning how to breath in a way that will bring about this outcome fast and effectively.
Breathing deeply with a slow and steady inhalation and exhalation pattern, signals our parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our body that switches off our bodies stress response) to calm the body down. If you want to start to practice proper deep breathing, pop your hand on your tummy at the bottom of the rib cage. Take a big breath in and feel for your stomach pushing out, this reflects an expansion of your diaphragm. Then as you breath out, the stomach will suck back in. It may feel strange to begin with. If you notice that when breathing in, your stomach sucks in and when you breath out, it pushes out – then you are shallow breathing. Keep practicing the deep breathing technique and once you have got the hang of it, you can start to work on your inhalation/exhalation ratio. Take 5 slow, deep breaths and then begin to inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 4. Start with counts to 4 and then slowly increase to counts of 5 and then 6 to 8. This simple technique of equal counts in and out, has been shown to enhance the parasympathetic response and induces calm and relaxation.
Just learning to deep breath, is so very helpful to stress and anxiety management, sleep management and has been shown to enhance physical health including cardiovascular health, gastrointestinal health such as IBS, chronic pain conditions and much more. If you practice deep breathing every day for a few minutes, it will help you feel more calm and centred each day, without even trying.
Once you are breathing properly, you can start to learn to practice ‘mindful breathing’. This is a core psychological skill that helps you to learn to use mindfulness to understand yourself better and to improve the way you think, feel and react when life is feeling hard or upsetting.
I remember when I first starting learning about mindful breathing many years ago, before it had reached mainstream western culture. I have always been very scientifically minded and so the stigma of mysticism attached to it made me a bit of a skeptic. I remember sitting cross-legged my hands open, palms up, finger and thumb touching, my lips slightly apart and the lids of my eyes gently resting … yep, in retrospective, my initial introduction didn’t help with my preconceived stereotypes of it being only for the hippy-types! Nevertheless, I gave it a go. I was guided to listen to my breath. That was weird to me … I didn’t think I could ‘hear’ my breath, unless I had a wheezy cold! I persisted. Breathe in, hold it, breathe out. Okay, I can do that.
I started to learn that what they meant was for me to experience what breathing was like for me, right in that moment. So I wasn’t trying to calm or turn off the mind, but instead I was being deliberately alert and conscious of the experience of breathing – I followed my breath and just noticed what it felt like in my nose, mouth, chest as I took breaths in and out.
The more I practiced it, the more ‘real’ and ‘understandable’ it felt to me.
Mindful breathing as a practice, offers you the opportunity to take a moment to be fully and entirely engaged with your breath in the present. The goal is to just notice and observe what it feels like to be taking each breath in and out, right now, without trying to change, analyse or think about the experience. Because the goal isn’t to fix or change your breathing, then it doesn’t matter if your breathing is slow, fast, laboured or free, whatever is happening right now in your body as you breathe, is just as it is meant to be and all you have to do, is watch it happening. Nothing more, nothing less. 5 minutes of mindful breathing per day has been shown to bring about positive improvements to mental health, over a 3 week period – that is actually pretty quick.
As you continue to practice mindful breathing, you will gradually start to develop a better connection with your body. The better connected you are with your body, the more effectively you will hear and understand what it is communicating to you. One of the key functions of the feelings and sensations you experience in your body is to give you information about what is going on for you. If you feel feelings of happiness, calmness or delight you are being given the message that things are all good. If you feel feelings of sadness, anger, stress or tension, your body is giving us an early warning signal to pay attention to what is happening, as things may not be all good, right now. The ability to anchor yourself in your breath, brings you out of your head and gives you a good, solid base to get better awareness of how you actually feel and in time, what sort of things are upsetting you, worrying you or need your attention.
Your breathing is with you all the time, every minute, always. So it can feel very empowering to know that it is a tool to help you feel calm, find perspective and manage your well being. Like all skills in life, it does take a little practice, so see if you can build it into a daily routine, like doing it after your shower, or on public transport or 30 minutes before bed. I promise you will notice a life changing difference and will feel like you have built a skill for life, that has actually always been available to you, you just may not have been aware of it!
If you want to give mindful breathing a go, try this:
- Find a comfortable place where you feel safe and relaxed. Sit (rather than lay down, because we want you to be alert), keep your back upright and hands resting comfortably. Close your eyes.
- Just start by noticing your body sitting there, feel its weight on the chair or cushion, relax your shoulders and feel your body sink a little. Then begin by taking 3 long slow deep breaths.
- Now tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of your breath and start to trace it in your mind, follow it and observe the sensations that it activates as you breath in and out. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. When one breath ends, the next begins, just follow each breath as they happen.
- As you sit there focused on your breath, your mind will almost certainly wander. You may start thinking about other things, plans for the day or have thoughts about the exercise itself. This is not a problem, it is normal and natural. Your goal here is to just notice that your mind has wandered away and gentally but deliberately redirect your attention back to your breath.
- Stay here for about five minutes Notice your breath in silence, and when you get lost in thought, just bring it back.
- Once 5 minutes or so is up, take one more long slow deep breath and return your focus to the weight of your body sitting. Slowly bring yourself back into your environment, noticing sounds around you and when you are ready, open your eyes, and note your appreciation for doing this practice today!
Remember, the only way to learn this skill – and to believe in it – is to try it. I promise you, you will love it when you get going with it.