By: Andrea Gargano, LCPC
If you have ever taken a yoga class, you have probably heard the instructor say things like, “Just breathe,” or “Focus on your breath.” Breathing is an essential element of yoga. Yoga involves intentional breathing – breathing with purpose and in a controlled manner – a technique which may also help with anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles. Making breath the focus while practicing yoga can deepen relaxation and enhance a mind-body connection, as it has direct effects on the body’s autonomic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary functions such as breathing and heartbeat. Conscious breathing can have beneficial effects on the body, which is why many report feeling more deeply relaxed after practicing yoga. You can achieve these benefits through yoga or simple deep breathing exercises, which are easy to practice outside of therapy sessions.
Be Aware of Your Breathing
Take a moment now to bring awareness to your breath. Notice how it feels as it enters and exits your nostrils. Is it warm or cool? How about the texture? Is it smooth or choppy? How does your body react to your breath? Does your belly rise and fall with each round of breath? Do your shoulders move up and down? Notice how the qualities of your breath and bodily responses to each inhalation and exhalation happen involuntarily. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is in charge of making sure that you continue to breathe without having to think about it. But what happens when you become conscious of your breath and breathe in an intentional way? There is a physiological reason why counselors suggest this as a method for calming anxiety outside of therapy sessions.
Why Intentional Breathing Helps
Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, a branch of the ANS referred to as the “rest and digest” system. When you are feeling stressed or anxious, you may experience shallow breath and a racing heart. The other part of the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system, consisting of the “fight or flight” mechanism, is likely activated. Deep breathing puts the parasympathetic nervous system in the driver’s seat. Both branches of the ANS are important and necessary. Deep breathing just allows for more regulation between the two. If you have experienced trauma or anxiety, your sympathetic nervous system is probably over-activated; practicing deep breathing can be a great way to calm your feelings of anxiety or panic outside of therapy.
Practice Deep Breathing
There are a variety of breathing techniques you can try. Let’s practice conscious breathing now by utilizing a three-part breath. Breathe in deeply imagining that there is a balloon in your abdomen inflating as you inhale to the count of three. Pause for a moment. Now exhale to the count of 3 as the imaginary balloon deflates. Breathe in to the count of 3 again filling your abdomen with air and expanding your rib cage. Exhale deflating your rib cage and abdominal area. Next, breathe deeply into your abdomen, rib cage, and finally your chest. Pause briefly. Exhale slowly reversing the flow through your chest, rib cage, and abdomen. Repeat this pattern of breathing and pay attention to the changes that take place in your body.
Notice how focusing on your breath forces you to be in the moment. Bringing you into the present may be another reason that deep breathing has such a calming effect and can benefit your mental health. To learn how to breathe more intentionally or about different techniques to help relieve stress, contact Symmetry Counseling to schedule a therapy session today.