- Kim Keys, LCPC
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
It’s the simplest thing in the world, right? Just breathe.
Most of us don’t even think about it.
We do it every moment of our lives.
Sometimes we hold it and sometimes it gets taken away, but it’s always there, this breath.
Taken for granted, some might say.
Breathing is the first line of defense against anxiety and depression symptoms and really the key to self control, inner peace, and overall happiness. The Buddhas and yogis and shamans of many traditions have all said as much. So let’s take a closer look at this seemingly simple process.
Take a moment to simply notice your breath, right now as you are reading. Do your best not to change anything about the natural rhythm that is already present. Just notice. Be curious. Take your time.
Where does one breath start and the next breath end? Can you pick up on that little pause between inhaling and exhaling? Then again on exhaling then inhaling?
If you're breathing through your nose, feel the coolness as air rushes into your nostrils or over your upper lip.
Notice your lungs expanding and the sensations in your chest.
See how closely you can focus your attention on this process and how long you can keep it there. If thoughts distract your focus, count your exhalations. If you lose count, as soon as you notice, start at 1. If you can get all the way to 10 with out losing focus, just start over at 1.
Stay with this exercise as long as you want and return to it as often as you can, it is the basis for everything else this post will discuss.
When it comes to mental health, healing from trauma, and overall happiness there is one muscle that is rarely discussed and is probably the most important: awareness. Maybe because it is not exactly a muscle like a bicep, but more like a mental muscle. Yet, it works a lot like other muscles in the body: it needs exercise to get stronger, as it strengthens it can do more, and if it stops being exercised it loses strength. Awareness is simply your ability to notice what is happening in your mind, body, and the world around you. It is your attention. And you can take it to the gym and build it up like any other muscle in the body. In this analogy, breathing exercises are just one of many weight machines in the gym. And lucky for us, easily transportable, and no membership dues required.
Breathing is also a way of hacking into your body’s automated systems. Your miracle-body is pre-programmed and automated to do so many things for you. Digestion, cell repair, heart beating, hair growing, temperature regulating, and on and on. We sure wouldn’t have much time for Facebook if we had to be in charge of all these processes. One of those important automated systems has to do with threat detection. Our brain is constantly scanning the environment for danger and often mistaking innocuous information for threat. When we take control of our breathing we can send a message to this and many of the automated systems that it is safe enough for us to relax and for our body to engage in self-repair, digestion, and other functions that aren’t as important when we might be in danger.
So this simple act of noticing our breath can help us build our awareness muscle and signal our automated systems that we are safe. Sounds pretty amazing... cue infomercial host, “But wait! There’s more!” We can go beyond simply noticing the breath and start to train our brain and body to breathe more purposefully and spend more time in a state of relaxation, heighten our awareness, and gain a stronger sense of peace and happiness. Sounds to good to be true, right? Probably going to cost a fortune, too. Where’s the tiny print with all the disclaimers?
The only disclaimer is you have to do it to get the benefits. There are lots of breathing exercises out there, just find one that works for you and practice with it every day. I will include a few of my favorites here to get you started.
For each exercise it is important to locate and engage your diaphragm. If you are not familiar with diaphragmatic breathing, try raising your hands above your head while breathing and feel the shift into your lower abdomen. Your stomach should move and your lungs should expand more fully. It may feel weird at first, but keep at it. Like every muscle, it will build with practice.
Start with a slow deep inhalation through your nose and count slowly to yourself to the number 4. Hold your breath and count slowly to yourself to the number 7. Slowly exhale through your mouth and count slowly your self to the number 8. On the exhale, try pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth and pursing your lips a bit, this helps slow the flow of air so you can have a nice slow exhale and get all the way to 8. Repeat at least 3 full cycles, more if desired. Find a counting rhythm that works for you and over time see if you can slow it more and more.
Start with a slow inhalation through your nose counting to yourself to the number 4. Hold your breath counting to the number 4. Slowly release your breath through your nose counting to yourself to the number 4. Hold your breath out counting to yourself to the number 4. And repeat. As the name alludes, each cycle of breath is an equal side of the square, inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Find a counting rhythm that works for you and slow it down over time.
Now go back to that first exercise of simply noticing your breath and apply all the same strategies and everything you learned from that to these new breathing exercises. Whether you like 4-7-8 or square breathing, or even one you invent on your own, bring that same curiosity and noticing to the exercise, and voila! Two birds with one stone. You are building your awareness muscle and sending the safety signal to your automated systems.
One last, and very important note: you get out what you put in. If you read this post and say to yourself, “oh, that’s cool, I’ll have to try that,” and never put forth any effort, it’s not going to change anything for you. Nothing changes if nothing changes. If you make a concerted effort to engage in a breathing practice multiple times every day for a few minutes and you bring the same level of noticing and focus you did when you tried this for the first time, I challenge you to come back and tell me it didn’t have a positive impact on your life. And listen, our brains our lazy, ahem, I mean efficient and conservative, so if you practice this for awhile you’ll start to find it becomes your go to and even in times of stress you’ll find yourself slowing your breath, counting, and able to remain more calm and feeling more steady in your body.