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How you can breathe your way to feeling better

Updated: Feb 2


I know what you’re thinking.


Breathing blah blah blah...meditation blah blah blah...artsy fartsy blah blah blah....


But hear me out. Your (potential) use of breathing strategies to calm yourself has nothing to do with how you feel or think about yoga or meditation or the like.


So why exactly should you care more about your breathing? I'll tell you.



Oxygen is crucial to helping your body and brain work smoothly (duh).


But typically if we are feeling anxious, agitated, or upset in any sort of way, we tend to hold our breath a little. Our breathing gets shallow and we take these quick little sips of air without even realizing it. This means that less oxygen is getting into our system, which means our blood isn’t flowing as well, which means our body functions and brains aren’t going to work as optimally as they can...which means you have less access to all of your physical, intellectual, and emotional tools.


Your breathing pattern and style sends signals to your brain.


Our body and our brain are always sending messages back and forth to each other. If the body is tense and oxygen-deprived, it will alert the brain that something is wrong and it should send the freak out signals. Freak out signals look like “Freeze” or “Run” or “Fight”, when actually those may not be the most helpful signals. Imagine giving a presentation or being stuck in a traffic jam and your shallow breathing is sending the message to your brain that it needs to enact the “Freeze” or “Run” or “Fight” sequence. How does that play out?

Your breath is always with you.


We get stuck in situations and emotions that we cannot control every single day.


We *hate* not having control. One thing that you *do* have control over is your breath and how you can use it to regulate your experience in those other moments. Basically, effective breathing is a tool you can pull out anytime, anywhere to improve your situation immediately, at least a little.


We are smarter when we breathe better.


Quality breathing helps to relax our bodies and our whole system. When we are relaxed we have better judgment. Alternatively, when we are tense we tend to be operating from a protective or survival framework, and are more impulsive. A side benefit is that when we are focused on our breathing, it’s more difficult to be simultaneously in a worry spiral.


Have I convinced you to care and learn a little about how to use your breath as a tool? I hope so.


First, you’ll want to be sure you are breathing correctly.


When we experience high anxiety or other strong emotions, we tend to breathe shallowly and from our chest/shoulder area. When our anxiety is lower, we breathe more deeply and naturally from our diaphragm (located just below our lungs). To notice the difference, lie on the floor or bed and put your hand on your belly. You should be able to feel & see your belly rise. This is the type of breathing we are aiming for.

Another way to think about the inhale is to imagine yourself sucking in enough air to fill up a balloon or blow out cake candles and how deeply you would breathe for that. Then for the exhale, imagine breathing air out through a straw or blowing bubbles and how slowly you would need to do that so the bubbles don’t pop.


Next, you will want to start practicing breathing better.


Practice when you are NOT freaked out so that you start teaching yourself how to easily harness your breath when it starts to get chaotic. Then it will be more possible for you to also harness your breath in those high intensity moments too.

Here are some of my favorite breathing methods.


Square breathing

It’s called “Square” or “box” breathing because it has 4 steps like the 4 sides of a square.

Step 1 - Breathe slow and deep into your belly for 4 counts.

Step 2 - hold it for 4 counts

Step 3 - exhale slowly for 4 counts

Step 4 - hold for a final 4 counts.


Then repeat this process 4 times to make a square. It takes just over one minute and can relax your body and regulate your mind. It’s helpful for beginners, because the counting makes it easier to avoid thought distractions and maintain focus. Also, if you are able to go longer than the count of 4, do it! Your endurance should increase over time.


Single nostril breathing

This is another simple one that is great for beginners.

  • Hold a pointer finger up to one nostril and press it closed.

  • Breathe in deeply.

  • Switch to the other nostril and press it closed.

  • Breathe out slowly.

  • Repeat 10 times or more.

The use of a single nostril will naturally slow your breathing without a lot of effort on your part.


1 to 10 breathing

I like this one because it’s easy to remember and keeps you focused on counting instead of unhelpful thoughts. The slower you can do this, the better.

  • Breathe in and think 1

  • Breathe out and think 2

  • Breathe in and think 3

  • Breath out and think 4

  • ....etc. until you reach 10.

  • Then reverse and count back down to 1


Now just practice noticing the quality of your breathing and doing these exercises regularly. Some folks I work with like to use their FitBit or smart watch movement alerts as a reminder each hour to do a quick breathing practice. You could also use bathroom breaks as a cue to do a breathing exercise during potty time.


One more reminder about why this matters...


When you practice noticing and slowing your breath on a regular basis, you will be able to remember to do it more easily when you are in an escalated emotion. Your breath helps your body & brain feel and stay in more control more often.


Your breath is a coping tool that is with you all the time...use it!


Photo credits in order of appearance: Michelle on Unsplash, Jamie Street on Unsplash and Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

© 2017 Heather M. McKenzie, Therapist LCMHC PLLC

(919) 744-8335

heather@mckenziecounseling.org

all areas of North Carolina, United States​