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Sarah Parkes

SFU Health and Counselling Services
Registered Clinical Counsellor

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Breathing is both involuntary and voluntary and the way we breathe in a given moment can provide some insight into how we may be feeling.

Take a moment to notice your breath as you read these words. Are you breathing fully and deeply? Are you breathing quickly or slowly? Is your breath shallow? Are you holding your breath? You may even notice that the quality of your breathing changed as soon as you began to notice your breath.

Breathing is both involuntary and voluntary and the way we breathe in a given moment can provide some insight into how we may be feeling. For example you may notice that you hold your breath when you are feeling tense and stressed. Your breathing may be quicker and shallower during moments of trepidation or anxiety. Conversely, you may notice that your breathing pattern is much slower when you are feeling safe, relaxed and calm. Physical and emotional states affect our breath and our breath can also affect how we feel.

We can harness the power of breathing in order to calm and soothe our systems, enhance our mood, and increase our ability to focus (Ma et al., 2017; Stromberg et al., 2015). Controlled breathing practices have been part of Eastern traditions for thousands of years and the benefits of these practices have been demonstrated - and continue to be explored - through scientific research. One easy and effective controlled breathing practice is called “calm breathing” (aka deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing).      

Calm Breathing Instructions

Calm breathing involves taking smooth, slow, and regular breaths. Aim to complete 6 to 7 breathing cycles per minute.  

1. Sit upright. This will create more space for your lungs and diaphragm to expand.

2. Rest your arms on your lap, the arms of your chairs or place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly.

3. Take a slow breath in through your nose, breathing into your lower belly (for about 4 seconds).

4. Hold your breath for 1 or 2 seconds.

5. Exhale slowly and softly through your mouth for 4 to 6 seconds.

6. Pause for 2 seconds and repeat.

Tips for Practice

  • Practice breathing regularly. Practicing calm breathing for as little as 5 minutes a day can be very beneficial.

  • Practice breathing during a time of day when your stress is slightly lower. Practicing calm breathing when you are feeling less stressed is important because it allows you to feel a sense of calm more easily. Your body then develops memory for the feeling of calm. This allows you to notice when your stress levels are beginning to climb and it increases the effectiveness of calm breathing when you are feeling more stressed.

  • Try to breathe from your belly or diaphragm. Imagine you are filling this area of your body with air as you inhale, like filling a balloon. See if you can allow your shoulders and chest area to relax while you breathe into your belly. As you learn, it can be helpful to place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Try to breathe into the hand on your belly, while you keep your chest and shoulders relaxed.

Now that you have tried experienced calm breathing, you may like to explore some other breathing practices.

Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing simply entails being aware of your breath. You do not need to change your breath in any way; the work is simply noticing the sensations of your breath. Notice each inhale and each exhale. Your mind will wander in this practice. Simply notice when your mind is distracted by thoughts, sounds, memories, emotions (or anything else) and re-direct you attention back to your breath.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi shodana pranayama or alternate nostril breathing is a controlled yogic breathing practice.

To practice alternate nostril breathing (Cronkleton, 2018):

  • Find a comfortable seated position.

  • Rest your left hand on your lap.

  • Bring your right hand to your nose.

  • Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.

  • Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.

  • Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.

  • Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.

  • Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.

  • Repeat and continue for up to 5 minutes.

  • Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.

Focus on breathing slowly, fully and continuously.

Square Breathing

Square breathing is a controlled breathing pattern that includes breath retention. Imagine each breath cycle is a square. Use a 1:1:1:1 ratio for inhaling, holding in, exhaling, and holding out (Ramirez, 2020). For example, inhale for a count of 4, pause for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4 and pause for a count of 4 before inhaling again.  Repeat and continue for up to 5 minutes.

About the Author

Sarah Parkes

SFU Health and Counselling Services
Registered Clinical Counsellor
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