Have you ever helped a child calm down by having them take a few deep breaths with you? Intentionally slowing down their breathing is often an enormously helpful tool in teaching children how to manage their emotions. Once a child is calm, then you can work with them to resolve the problem they initially reacted to.
It seems like, as people age and learn to control their outward responses, they stop using many of the techniques that actually calm their emotions and physical responses. Unfortunately, many adults live highly stressful lives and, although they outwardly display socially acceptable responses, they often carry their emotional and mental burdens. Eventually, the near-constant stress takes a physical or mental toll and may cause a variety of health problems.
There are many ways to manage stress. Some of them are simple, like getting enough sleep. If you don’t believe this is an effective way to respond better to stress, think about something stressful in your daily life such as driving in traffic. It is much easier to react well to traffic when you are well-rested than after a week of sleeping poorly. Other simple lifestyle choices that help when you encounter stressful situations include consuming healthy foods most of the time, exercising regularly, spending time with family and friends, and making time for hobbies.
There are also specific relaxation techniques you can practice to counter the harmful effects of stress. Spending time in nature, prayer and meditation, journaling, yoga, tai chi, massage, and deep breathing are proven techniques to calm your mind and body.
Breathing techniques have long been used to calm emotional children and are enormously helpful for women dealing with the pain and stress of childbirth. It has been an integral component of meditation practices for thousands of years. Despite its long history in many cultures, breathing techniques have been largely ignored in mainstream western culture. This is unfortunate because breathing techniques can help manage pain, energize or calm your mind, help you physically relax, lower blood pressure, and even change your mood. Learning to breathe deeply brings more oxygen into your cells, and helps you expel more carbon dioxide. Without enough oxygen, none of your organs can function to their fullest potential. This includes your brain, which means that deep breathing can improve your mental processes.
Calming down in response to deep breathing is not simply a placebo effect. Consciously breathing slowly and deeply activates portions of your brain which control how your body responds. Hormones that are created in a response to stress are reduced, while others that induce relaxation are produced. Your blood pressure and heart rate decrease and your muscles relax. It also facilitates the movement of lymph fluid through the body and bloodstream, helping your body eliminate toxins more effectively.
Deep breathing is easy to do, but many of us need to consciously practice breathing deeply, as we tend to take short shallow breaths most of the time. Generally, the more stressed or anxious you feel, the shorter and more shallow your breathing becomes. This is where practice helps. If you take time to teach your body how to breathe deeply when you begin to feel stressed you can quickly change your breathing pattern to help your body produce a relaxation response.
Deep Breathing Techniques
The first step is to learn the difference between how your body feels when you normally breathe and when you breathe deeply. Here’s how:
Lie down on your back or sit comfortably with your back straight.
Rest one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, just below your rib cage. Take a few breaths and notice the movement of your hands. Most likely the hand on your chest moves more, or they both move about the same. If you breathe very shallowly, you may not notice much movement at all.
Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand. If you are breathing deeply, the hand on your abdomen will rise while the hand on your chest will barely move.
Exhale slowly through your nose and feel the hand on your abdomen lower back down.
Continue to breathe slowly and deeply through your nose.
A few notes about practicing deep breathing:
There is no need to try to force all the air in or out. As it feels natural, inhale then exhale in a continuous cycle. The important thing is to feel the hand on your abdomen move up and down with each breath.
Certain breathing techniques call for breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. This is not necessary for regular deep breathing. Breathing out through the nose helps you breathe more slowly and creates a backflow of air into the lungs. This gives the lungs more time to extract oxygen from the air and helps maintain the proper ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide so your blood pH can stay balanced.
As with any other skill, the more you practice deep breathing the more natural it will feel. Some people do well when they schedule time to practice. If so, schedule 5 to 20 minutes, once or twice a day. Others do better by working it into their daily activities, several times a day. Whatever works best for you is fine, because the key is committing to practicing regularly. In addition to the health benefits of daily deep breathing, regular practice will make it feel more natural to fall back on during times of stress when you need it most.
There are many other breathing techniques that offer a variety of benefits. Once you are comfortable with deep breathing, you can try some of the other techniques and see which you enjoy the most. Here are a few more techniques that may be helpful.
During equal breathing, you simply practice deep breathing while focusing on matching the length of time you breathe in and breathe out. Try beginning with breathing in while you count to three, then breathe out while counting to three. Keep practicing for five minutes. You can expand the time for each breath until you reach the pace that is most comfortable. Most people are comfortable at three or five seconds for each inhale and exhale, but some can extend it for up to ten seconds with practice.
4-7-8 breathing uses deep breathing to help you relax. Breathe in deeply through your nose as you’ve already learned for the count of four. Hold the breath while you count to seven, then breathe out completely through your mouth for the count of eight.
Morning breathing helps loosen your body and relax muscle tension. It is a great way to wake up but is also useful any time you feel back and shoulder tension throughout the day. Begin this while standing. Slowly bend forward from the waist with your knees slightly bent and your arms hanging toward the floor. Take a deep, slow, belly breath while you roll up through the spine until you are standing straight and tall. Stay standing for a moment then exhale as you slowly return to the original bent position. Repeat a few times until you feel the tension release.
As with getting enough sleep, using breathing techniques to relax and gain better mental and physical health seems like such a minor thing. Unfortunately, it is something that far too few people utilize. Simply try practicing for three to five minutes once a day and see if it begins to help you feel calmer and less stressed after a few minutes. It may be just the thing you need to learn to relax and avoid the health problems that accompany chronic stress.
If you suffer because of chronic stress, we are here for you. We can help you repair the damage already caused, and our lifestyle educators will partner with you so you can begin to better manage all the stress that life throws at you.
Melynda has been practicing Family and Pediatric Medicine since 1995 as a Certified Family and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. She is a compassionate healthcare provider who believes in caring for each patient in a unique, holistic and individualized manner. She specializes in Preventative and Integrative healthcare for the entire family and believes that educating her patients to prevent disease and promote health is of the utmost importance. She previously practiced in San Diego, California, and has enjoyed serving patients in her local community of Temecula since 2000.