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Don’t Hold Your Breath!

“Just remember to breathe.”

How many times has someone said that to you? And how many times have you thought, “Um, how is it possible to forget to breathe?”

It’s easier than you might think.

Many times, we get deeply involved in a task. We are laser-focused on finishing that project for work, reading the last paragraph of that chapter, completing that last bench press set. If you stop in the middle of one of these activities, you’ll likely find your shoulders have crept up toward your ears and you were, indeed, holding your breath. 

Breathing itself is an unconscious bodily function. Though unconscious, it’s important to take some time each day to connect with and focus on your breath. Mental health experts often recommend breathing exercises for clients to help with relaxation, stress reduction and to improve focus. 

Notice Your Breath

Breathing is an autonomic bodily function. That means it happens unconsciously. So, whether you are aware of it or not, your body will make sure it is getting and releasing air to and from the lungs. 

Normally, you have a pretty uniform way of breathing. In fact, you probably don’t even notice it. When you are frightened or excited, your breathing likely quickens. Your breaths become shorter, and you may feel as though you aren’t getting enough air into your lungs. In some instances, such as when you are experiencing anxiety, you may have trouble controlling the rate, or pace of your breathing. 

Research confirms that it is possible to control certain aspects of the autonomic nervous system (which includes breathing, blood pressure and heart rate). This is accomplished through breathing techniques. 

Using Your Breath

One of the most effective ways to help mitigate stress is performing specific breathing exercises. There are numerous techniques to choose from. Here, I’ll discuss a few of my favorites. 

4-7-8

This breathing pattern has been used successfully to reduce stress and help manage blood pressure. The guru of mind-body health, Dr. Andrew Weil, touts this method.

Here’s how it works: Sit upright in a comfortable, quiet place. Rest your hands in your lap. Make sure your tongue is settled next to your upper teeth. Breathe out all of the air in your lungs (make a “whoosh” sound). Next, breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Then breathe out for a count of eight (again, making that “whoosh” sound).

The idea is to empty your lungs of all of their air on the exhale. Dr. Weil cautions that some people may feel a bit light-headed from this technique at first, so it’s best to start with just four sets, working your way up to eight sets after at least a month of practice.  

Three-Minute Breathing Space

This technique begins by being hyper aware of your present state. Even if you are not in a positive state of mind, it’s important to think about what is going on in your environment. This step is called “Awareness.” Next, focus completely on your breathing. Just breathe normally. This step is called “Gathering,” because you are gathering your focus. Finally, you are instructed to “Expand” your focus from your breath to the rest of your body. This entire sequence should be done over a three-minute timeframe. 

Box Breathing

No box is required for this. You perform a series of four-count breaths. This is also called square breathing. It’s a simple, yet powerful, tool for stress reduction. Here’s how it works: Empty all of the air from your lungs. Hold for a count of four. Inhale for a count of four. Hold for another count of four. Exhale for four. Hold for four. Repeat. 

The Benefits of Your Breath

Mental health professionals regularly teach clients breathing exercises to help combat anxiety, depression and other stressors. Proper breathing is so important, in fact, that a 2019 article in Scientific American was dedicated to discussing how breathing correctly can promote overall health. 

Breathing exercises can be done anywhere, any time, and are useful in a range of situations, too. Connecting with your breath before you start your day allows you to ground. Ever felt stuck or distracted? Perhaps in traffic or trying to focus with excessive background noise? Connect with your breathe. Feel your lungs take in air and notice how your abdomen expands. Breathing is a practice just like anything else. When we practice, we become better at it and reap the benefits of said practice.

This is not to say that breathing exercises are a cure-all for mental health conditions. Always consult a professional if you are experiencing feelings of distress. 

Life is stressful. Learning to take a few quiet moments for yourself to focus on breathing can help with relaxation. 

When all else fails, just remember to breathe

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