Take a Breather [Repeat as Needed]
Updated: Aug 13
How many times have you felt upset, frustrated, or just annoyed and someone has told you to just breathe? In a highly stressful moment, this suggestion may appear either confusing, overwhelming, or sometimes insulting. You may be thinking “I am breathing, what does this person think I am doing right now? Breathing more isn’t going to help me right now!”. What people usually forget to disclose when they give this advice is that they are not suggesting you start to breathe, but to change how you’re currently breathing. Let’s briefly dive into the popular coping skill of deep breathing and how it can help you.
What’s the Difference From Normal Breathing?
We are always breathing, whether we are eating, talking, exercising, or simply sitting, our bodies are constantly taking in oxygen in order for us to survive. Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a step above standard survival breathing; it is used to help us relax our bodies and mind before a stressful event, after an overwhelming conversation, or during a sudden unexpected negative change in our world. Deep breathing essentially returns our bodies and mind to a state of balance and security, previously heightened from external pressures. Studies conducted on deep breathing have shown that there are many benefits including:
Lowering Heart Rate and Blood Pressure
Triggering Endorphins-the chemical that increases happiness and decreases pain
Strengthening Attention and focus away from negative thoughts
Helping with Sleep Difficulties
Bringing awareness to your body sensations
Reducing feelings of anger
Deep breathing is a coping skill that individuals can take anywhere, no purchase necessary. The most important part of mastering deep breathing is to practice when our bodies are not in a state of stress. By being preventive, rather than trying it for the first time in a state of crisis, there is more confidence in our deep breathing skills.
How To Practice Deep Breathing
As we train our bodies to breath in a different way, it is helpful to have a few guidelines to perfect our technique. To get started, you will want to choose a private space to practice that has minimum distractions at first, such as a bedroom or a quiet outdoor space. As you gain the ability to control your deep breathing, you can advance to more public or distracting areas. Many individuals prefer to practice either sitting down in a chair with good back support, or even laying down. Choose an environment and bodily position that makes you feel safe, content, and peaceful to get the most out of your practices.
After finding your comfortable practicing area, follow these steps:
Place a hand on either your stomach or your chest, or you can put one hand on each location. The goal is you want to feel the power of your breath moving your hand as your chest and stomach rise and fall. Imagine that your abdomen is a balloon. Each inhale will expand the balloon more, causing it to get bigger, and will push your hand upward. With each exhale, then imagine you're letting go of the balloon, ever so gently, and a little bit of air is escaping. With the balloon air escaping, your abdomen will lower and so will your hand. Typically it is easier to feel your stomach move more than your chest. If you are going to only be placing one hand on your body, a hand on your stomach may be more beneficial than a hand on your chest.
Now it's time to fill up that balloon. Breathe in through your nose for at least four seconds. Inhale gently like you would as you were taking in a pleasant smell. Starting to practice deep breathing in increments of four seconds is called four-square breathing.
After you have breathed in and expanded your abdomen, you are going to sit with your breathe for four seconds. This helps bring a feeling of control and calmness to your body. As a beginner, you may have trouble holding your breath, try practicing some sessions with holding and others without to become comfortable with the feeling and to build up body resiliency.
After holding, breathe out through your mouth for four seconds. Exhale gently like you would as you are trying to blow bubbles, this will help slow down the breath. Feel your hand lowering and reflect on the air leaving your body.
In a traditional four-square breathing cycle, you will now hold your breathe a second time for four seconds before inhaling again. It is easy to imagine this cycle of breathing as a physical square: inhale one side, hold one side, exhale one side, and hold again for the last side.
Congratulations! You have a successfully completed a deep breathing exercise. As you practice and increase your knowledge of deep breathing don't be afraid to look up more advanced or different techniques of deep breathing. The graphic below demonstrates a type of deep breathing that is longer than four seconds but does not include holding times for the breath.
Additional Points to Consider
A very common question about practicing deep breathing is if you should keep your eyes open or closed during the exercise. If keeping your eyes open and fixing your gaze on a certain spot helps you focus, don't feel pressured to close them. On the other hand, if you feel more relaxed by giving your eyes a rest, close them as you deep breathe. An important part of deep breathing is staying present in the moment, you don’t want to fall asleep!
You may be wondering how often you should practice your deep breathing. When first introducing a new skill into your routine, it is ideal to aim for daily practice so you can get accustom to the change. Yet, you don’t want to force yourself to practice, deep breathing should be relaxing and helpful, not strenuous and uncomfortable. It may also be helpful to schedule your deep breathing exercises at the same time each day to build consistency. Making a schedule can keep you more accountable, and makes it easier for your mind to remember, "Practice deep breathing after breakfast at least 4 times this week" rather than "Practice deep breathing sometime this week".
All of our bodies are different, therefore there is no direct time limit on deep breathing. Some people feel calm and comfortable after 30 seconds, others over 2 minutes. Do what personally feels good and what makes your body comfortable. There is also no direct number of breaths that you must take to successfully complete a deep breathing session. One good deep breathe is better than zero deep breaths; however challenge yourself to build up your breaths over time. The more you push yourself in practice sessions, the easier deep breathing will become in stressful situations.
Be sure to collaborate with your thoughts and feelings as you deep breath. How do you feel your mood changing? What thoughts have deep breathing brought to your mind? Listen to your body as you deep breath: Where in your body do you feel your breath moving?
The Number One point to consider: Don’t give up after a bad deep breathing session! Good changes take time and patience to master. As you are challenging yourself to practice this new ability, remember how much progress you have made to where you are now.
Ambardekar, N. (2020, January 19). Deep Breathing Exercises & Techniques for Stress Management and Relief. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-relief-breathing-techniques
Gotter, A. (2020, June 17). Box Breathing: Techniques, Benefits, GIF, and More. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/box-breathing
Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353