dean bertoncelj/Shutterstock
Source: dean bertoncelj/Shutterstock

By Carla Naumburg, PhD

Breathing is getting a lot of attention lately, and I know it's beginning to sound trite. But there's a reason we mindfulness folk keep beating this particular drum: It works.

Here's why. First, just merely remembering to breathe requires us to interrupt whatever we are doing or thinking that has our stomach in knots. Sometimes a few seconds of intentional breathing is enough to get us into a different and more helpful frame of mind. Even if it isn't, it's still nice to get a short break from the madness in our mind.

And when we're stressed out, our sympathetic nervous system takes over, raising our blood pressure, speeding up our breathing, and releasing stress hormones. Slow, deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system instead, and this puts the brakes on that series of events.

Breathing is also free, easy, and possible to do anytime: on the train to work, standing in line for coffee, before hitting send on that email, or while in the middle of yelling at our spouse. We always have the opportunity to stop and get a handle on what we are thinking and feeling.

Here are three easy breathing exercises and when they can help you. 

When you are feeling very emotional.
Any kind of intentional breathing will be helpful when you're caught up in a storm of emotion. The trick here is to notice that you're overwhelmed and remember to breathe, which isn't as easy as it sounds. If you're looking for a specific exercise, try five deep breaths. (I chose five because you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Feel free to choose three or seven or any other number.) Once you've decided on your magic number, take a few long, slow deep breaths in through your nose, and then exhale slowly through slightly parted lips. Repeat as often as necessary.

When you want to start a mindfulness practice.
It's not always easy to remember to breathe in the moments when we most need to, but building a mindfulness practice will help you do just that. Some people call this meditation, but you can call it breathing practice, taking a time out, or whatever you want. All it requires is taking a few minutes each day to pay attention to your breathing. 

  • Start small. Don't expect to go from zero to 20 minutes of meditation in a day. Start with two minutes and slowly build up over time. Try adding two minutes every two days until you reach 10 minutes, and then stick with that until you feel ready for more.
  • Sit in a comfortable position, not too slouched and but not too tense. Take a second to notice where your breathing is most obvious. It might be in your nose, your chest, or your belly, for instance. All you have to do is find where it is and focus there.
  • Breathe normally and comfortably. Each time your mind wanders (which it will), bring your attention back to your breath. Meditation isn't about holding perfectly steady attention. It's about noticing where your mind goes so you can make a conscious choice to breathe instead of getting swept up in your big feelings or unhelpful thoughts. The more you practice, the easier this becomes both when you are meditating and when you are going about your day.

When you are ready to go to sleep.
It's not uncommon for our brains to ramp up just as our bodies are shutting down. Counting your breaths not only calms your nervous system, but it also keeps your mind focused on something other than, well, everything. Try both of these easy ways to count your breathing and see which you prefer.

  • Inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four, all through your nose. Repeat.
  • Pay attention to where you are feeling your breath (nose, chest, belly) and then count each breath until you get to eight. For example, inhale on one. Exhale, two. Inhale, three. Exhale, four and so on. When you get to eight, or if you get distracted and lose count, start again at one.

If you're still awake after about 20 minutes, or you notice yourself getting increasingly agitated, try getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity such as reading a book (not a screen) or gentle stretching before returning to bed and your breathing.

The best way to breathe is the way that works for you. Try the practices I've suggested above, look for others online, or create your own. There's really no way to do this wrong, unless you start beating yourself up for doing it wrong. If you notice that happening, take a deep breath and remember that even though it's easy to breathe, it's hard to remember to breathe. Fortunately, you can start again at any moment.

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