We do it without awareness throughout the day and while we sleep. We inhale and exhale. We breathe. In December we celebrate holidays, experience the shortest days of daylight, and deal with increased workload as we complete one year and prepare for the next. And on top of it all, we are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that has upended life for everyone.
As a therapist, I see individuals of all ages who are experiencing stress, anxiety, and or depression. One thing I always share with clients is the positive effects that becoming conscious of our breath and regulating it can have on our well-being.
The importance and power of the breath has been in the news as well as being the subject of a recent book by James Nestor. Breathing techniques are nothing new though. Humans have intuitively used the power of the breath in individual meditation in many religious traditions, as well as in community singing like Gregorian chant. Becoming aware of your breathing is a first step. Bringing awareness to your breath brings you to the present moment and does not leave room for obsessing about the past or fretting about the future. This experience is known as grounding. In addition to noticing your breath without trying to change it, you can use your senses to ground you in the present moment. By finding five things you can see, four things, you hear, three things you feel with your sense of touch, and two things you smell, you will find yourself squarely in the present moment where you can experience some relief from the stress. You can even pop a mint or cough drop in your mouth to include your fifth sense.
Some easy to practice breathing techniques can also help during stressful situations. These take only a few minutes to practice, yet they can lower your blood pressure and reduce your heart rate to levels that prevent you from being in a fight or flight response. Many techniques involve counting the seconds of your inhale and exhale. For example, you can inhale through your nose 5 seconds and exhale for 7 seconds. Some practitioners also suggest holding the breath for one second in between inhale and exhale. As you breathe and count, it helps to focus on what it feels like for the air to enter your nose and fill your lungs and what it feels like when the air leaves your lungs. Experiment and find the breath pattern that works best for you, and check out resources like this one for more inspiration.
Sometimes learning and practicing a new skill as children do can be helpful. I’ll share some child-friendly ways to practice breathing. Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen. As you inhale notice the expansion of your belly. As you exhale notice the contraction. You have just completed one “belly breath” also known as diaphragmatic breathing. Another child-friendly technique is to use the image of a star on a piece of paper or in your mind’s eye. Inhale as you follow the outline up to a point, hold at the tip and then exhale as you continue the line down the other side. Finally, another method to slow your respiration rate and calm yourself is to give yourself a butterfly hug. The arms are crossed over the chest and the fingertips can be placed on the shoulders. You can tap each shoulder alternately at whatever rate feels comforting to you. In addition to slowing down breathing, the bilateral tapping can help you release stress.
As a final tip, I encourage you to practice whichever technique you favor at least once each day. If you practice while you are calm, you will find it easier to practice while you are stressed. One of these techniques can be easily incorporated into a bedtime routine, as an exercise with your partner, or with the whole family. I would love to hear which techniques you find helpful. Now, go breath with intention!