Breathing 101

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Breathing is always there to help and calm you down, to create the sense of safety and a secure base that we all need, but we need to learn how to use this precious resource.

This is probably not the first time I have written about this subject on this site, and I must have talked about it thousands of times with clients. But it always bears repeating because it is in my experience simply the single most helpful thing people can do to pretty much instantly improve the quality of their lives. Not only is the effect instant, it is also accumulative, which is to say that it just gets better and better. It is constantly — literally constantly, from birth to death — present and accessible, and it is completely free.

So breath is your best friend and most faithful companion. Your life completely relies on it, but it usually carries on quietly without expecting recompense. On the contrary, it is able and willing to give you much more life, more peace, calm and pleasure.

It is always there to help and calm you down, to create the sense of safety and a secure base that we all need, and the pure pleasure of being alive which is our birthright. But we need to learn how to use this precious resource, how to communicate with the breath. If we let it go on automatic, it will keep us alive but it will be dependent on the general state of our nervous system, which is generally dependent on the way we react to situations mentally. This reaction may be a no-brainer: if tragedy strikes or our lives are threatened, we will go into fight, flight or freeze mode quite appropriately and our breathing will join in and exacerbate the panic. Often, though, there is no tragedy occurring, yet our mental states and stories are sending signals to our nervous systems that lead to reactions of contraction, tension or outright panic. In these cases, entering the mental battlefield can be hard, and directly affecting our heart rates or production of adrenaline or cortisol is impossible. Our best point of intervention is the breath.

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It’s not just an emergency intervention, either. It’s probably fair to say that everyone is tenser than they actually need to be pretty much all the time. So a practice involving attending to our breathing in an intentional fashion even for a few minutes a day has benefits for everyone.

It doesn’t need to be complex or esoteric. A calming breath comes from the diaphragm, place your hand on your belly and make sure it rises when you breathe in, rather than your chest. Imagine your belly is a balloon filling with air, if this helps. Count if this helps, maybe up to four. Wait a few seconds before exhaling and then make the exhale about twice as long as the inhale. Just let it out, let it all go. Feel your hands move inwards as your belly contracts, and remain for a few seconds ‘on empty’ before letting the next breath come in, all by itself as it always does. Keep it low, steady, free flowing. And during the day, check every so often, particularly when you catch yourself worrying or anxious in any way, just to see if you are holding your breath. I can pretty much guarantee that I am at these moments. Luckily it’s extremely easily corrected. As I allow the breath to flow again, usually also relaxing my jaw, the thoughts and feelings also start to flow. The difference is subtle, but also pronounced. I’m back.

Paying any kind of attention to the breath at all has this effect of coming back, to reality, to the centre, and to a sense, however slight, of wellbeing. Making sure the breath is from the belly and that the outbreath is longer than the inbreath will inevitably calm the nervous system down a degree or two. If you’re unconvinced, try the opposite, gasping in loads of air from high in your chest and not letting much out at all. You can lead yourself into panic this way.

So stop doing that. Take a second to say thank you to the whole breathing mechanism. Let the air in and let it out again. Feel it happening for a moment, rather than concentrating on your thoughts. It’s as simple as that.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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