I uttered this question "do you even know how to breathe?" mid-session with a client. Actually, I said "do you know how to breathe properly?", which is a nicer way of saying what I was thinking, but making the same point. My client, and many other clients that I have seen over the years, was demonstrating difficulty breathing properly, by breathing too quickly and essentially hyperventilating. As a result, he was maintaining the anxious feeling he was experiencing by throwing out the chemical balance that we need for our body, with his body and brain going into "fight or flight" mode. When we tried to breathe using his diaphragm (breathing into the tummy, more on that later), he struggled. I also recalled a friend at the gym struggling with the concept of diaphragm breathing and realised it's a skill we are not taught consciously.
Our body is quite a complex set of systems and as a result, our brain has figured out a whole bunch of short-cuts so that we don't have to consciously think about things like breathing, walking, chewing etc. This is fine.... except when it's not. So for my client, who is struggling with anxiety and over-breathing causing panic-like symptoms, he now has to become a conscious breather in order to slow down his breath and in turn, calm down his nervous system.
There's a good chance at some point in your life you've been told this wonderful piece of advice from some well-intentioned friend or family member in the middle of a freak-out. Unfortunately, it's not that helpful or instructive. The problem with hyperventilating when you are anxious is that you are breathing too fast (even when taking "deep" breaths, this often done too quickly). What we need to do is to get our body back to its normal rhythm of breathing.
Mindful breathing is essentially becoming aware of your breath, and through this process being able to be present and in the moment, rather than scattered and erratic in our thinking. We can be "centered" and use our "wisemind" to make decisions, rather than off the cuff decisions based on emotions, or overthinking and paralysis in actions. Mindfulness breathing is simply the observation of one's breath - from the moment that it comes in, to the moment it goes out. When you become mindful of your breath, what you'll notice is that we don't breathe constantly in and out, but rather there are small pauses between inhalation and exhalation. What you may also notice by focusing on your breath is where your breath "ends" - does it end in your chest, or continue down into your belly; as well as all the thoughts that are swirling in your mind, which may also be contributing to anxiety such as "I can't breathe".
From this observation, we can then focus on breathing calmly (not forcefully) and breathing into our belly, by making our belly expand with each inhalation of breath - this is known as diaphragmatic breathing, and what we do naturally when we are in a relaxed state. The breathing rate needs to be at a comfortable rate for you, around 3-4 seconds inhalation, a slight pause, then 3-4 seconds exhalation and slight pause before the next inhalation.
Benefits of mindful breathing
There are many benefits to mindful breathing including (but not limited to):
- reduction in feelings of stress
- improved alertness
- increased patience
- improving resilience to stress
- improved health and wellbeing
- better choices
Practice makes better
Mindful breathing is a skill. And like any other skill, it requires practice to improve. Simply doing the occasional session of mindful breathing will not necessarily lead to the ability to be able to do mindful breathing. In fact, many of my clients tell me that they struggled to do it, but with practice improved. But here's an important fact - the simple act of trying mindful breathing and noticing that it is hard, is in actual fact, mindful breathing. So rather than give up at the first hurdle, simply notice to yourself "this is difficult" and try to re-focus on breathing. Practice makes better.