Mindful Breathing to Increase Feelings of Calmness and Centeredness
Can you think of a time when you were feeling nervous, sad, excited, anxious, or stressed and your instinct was to take a deep, cleansing breath? And maybe for that 3-second moment you felt some temporary relief? In my work with clients, regardless of what our work is focused on, I find myself incorporating mindful breathing exercises as a resource for clients to use in and out of session.
Personally, I like knowing why I’m doing something or how something works because it helps me make sense of what I’m doing. So, before we jump into discussing some of the specifics of mindful breathing, let’s have a shared understanding of breathing basics as related to our stress response. Two main systems involved in our body’s stress response are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (SNS). You might have heard the SNS referred to as our “fight-flight-freeze” response and the PNS as our “rest-digest-relax” response. While both systems are constantly active and can’t realistically be shut down, mindful breathing can help us “turn down” the SNS even if just a tad and have the SNS be more dominant for a bit. Thus, mindful breathing can help us increase feelings of calm, centeredness, and healing throughout the day.
A trusty rule of thumb for mindful breathing is to try achieving a fairly consistent, regulated, and controlled breathing pattern for the duration of the practice. I encourage you to also practice mindful breathing in moments when you are already feeling calm and centered, which could make it easier for you to tune into this resource when feeling less than calm and centered. Lastly, rather than potentially judging your breathing and yourself, I encourage you to tune into some gentle self-compassion as you begin practicing mindful breathing.
Now, here are 4 ways to practice mindful breathing:
1. Square breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts (so, 4-4-4-4).
2. 4-7-8 breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. You can also make adjustments to meet yourself where you’re at (e.g., inhale for 4, hold for 5, exhale for 6).
3. Belly breathing: while sitting or lying down, place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale slowly through your nose sending air toward your belly and then slowly exhale through your mouth. The goal is for the hand on your chest to remain still while the one on your belly rises and falls.
4. 2-1-4-1 breathing: inhale for 2 counts, hold for 1 count, exhale for 4 counts, and hold for 1 count. Repeat.
The reality is that mindful breathing is not an end-all-be-all treatment; rather, it is a very useful tool that complements other approaches. Mindful breathing is also a “muscle” that requires intentional strengthening. It can be a quick 30 second check-in while standing in the elevator or an intentional 1-minute practice before going to sleep. Much like other skills (think crocheting or distance running), mindful breathing is not something we are going to instantly master, nor would I expect you to mindfully breathe 24/7. While some of us might be find it easier to pick it up and begin practicing, others of us might take a bit longer to start toning that muscle. And that is okay.
If you feel 5% better after engaging in mindful breathing, that’s a win in my book—I’d throw some imaginary celebratory confetti for you!