You’re feeling like a big ball of stress. Maybe you have a big presentation to prepare for, or an important assignment to hand in. Or tensions are brewing in your family and you’re worried about how they could escalate. There’s a pit in your stomach, your palms are sweaty, your heart is racing… And your therapist asks you if you’ve tried deep breathing.
This suggestion may bother you. After all, you’re facing very real problems - how is a little bit of breathing going to change that?
Certainly, deep breathing is not a magic wand, and it can’t solve our problems for us.
But deep breathing is a really valuable tool to interrupt the spiral of fear and anxiety. Along with other mindfulness techniques and coping strategies, deep breathing can put you back into the driver’s seat so you are ready to tackle that big presentation, finally finish that assignment, or steady yourself for what’s coming next in your family.
How does deep breathing work?
When we are stressed out, afraid or in pain, our breaths tend to be fast and shallow. This is because the “fight-or-flight” part of the autonomic nervous system is active, and our body is preparing to respond to a threat to our survival. When we are in “fight-or-flight” mode, our body releases adrenaline and our heart rate increases, and we can get caught in a vicious cycle of rising anxiety and panic.
Deep breathing offers a reset by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets the “fight-or-flight” response. When we take slow, long breaths from our stomachs, our body starts to understand that we are not in immediate danger. Our heart rate slows, and we begin to feel more relaxed and calm. As we relax, we can begin to think more clearly again and are better positioned to work on causes of our stress.
How can I learn to breathe deeply?
Here are some steps to develop your own deep breathing method:
Practice at times when you are calm. The best time to figure out how to use a fire extinguisher is not when the fire is raging! Try to practice deep breathing before you need it, at a time when you are relaxed and open to experimenting with it.
Try different deep breathing patterns, and choose the one you like best! There are so many exercises and visuals that can guide deep breathing. As you explore the options, notice which ones work best for you. Not everyone will be drawn toward the same methods. Keep an open mind until you find the right imagery or process for you! VeryWell Mind has a great list of breathing exercises to try. For kids and visually-oriented adults, there are fun YouTube videos to guide you, like this little fish friend!
Whatever method you use, focus on your exhalation or “out” breath. When you breathe out a few seconds longer than you breathed in, you are maximizing the effects of your parasympathetic nervous system to soothe yourself.
Create a deep breathing reminder. When we get really worked up, it can be hard to remember to slow down and deploy those coping tools we’ve been collecting. As you practice, it will become a habit and you won’t have to think about it anymore. But while you are building the habit, it can be helpful to have a tangible reminder to breathe. To do this, think about the patterns associated with your stress levels. For example, if you are often stressed out at work, keep a sticky note in your car to remind you to do a set of deep breaths before you drive home. Or if you fidget with your fingers when nervous, keep a small rock or object in your pocket to cue you to breathe.
How can I teach my child to use deep breathing?
The same steps as above apply for kids! Give them plenty of opportunities to practice when calm, and offer verbal or visual reminders to try the breathing when they are upset. PBS has a great script to follow when teaching your child to “belly breathe.”
At first, your kid may only be willing to try once they are already starting to calm down; but after some practice, they will be able to use deep breathing to start the calming down process.
Kids learn a lot from seeing what we do, so developing your own deep breathing practice will help you pass it on to your child. When your child is experiencing big feelings, remember to take some deep breaths to keep yourself calm. You might even notice your kid beginning to take their own deep breaths, even without you saying anything! That’s part of the miracle of co-regulation between caregiver and child.
Deep breathing is a great resource to have in your coping skills toolbox. We hope these steps will help you develop a deep breathing practice that works for you!