The resilience coach's toolbox part 3

Posted on 20th July 2020

Breathing techniques to enhance your life.

Breathing is one of the best tools to calm the body and mind, helping to manage stress and anxiety. When we’re anxious or stressed, we usually breathe from our chest region, i.e. shallow breathing .  Shallow breathing can weaken the strength of the respiratory muscles and lead to us holding more tension in the upper body.  The good news is that there are some great breathing exercises that can help us to breathe more deeply. This enables us to relax, and once we are relaxed, we can think more clearly about the situation we’re in and find the best way to move forward. 

So, how do breathing techniques work? You may have heard of the 'fight or flight' response, which is what happens when the Sympathetic Nervous System is triggered. This system is triggered when our brain believes that we’re in danger. Adrenaline and cortisol then flood our system and prepares our body for action. Deep breathing techniques all have one thing in common, they activate the ’rest and digest’ system, otherwise known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System.  The results of activating this system include a decrease in blood pressure, pupil dilation and a slower heart rate – which all lowers emotional tension. 


Practising a breathing technique a few times a day will lower your overall stress levels and build your resilience in the long term. 

Here are 4 exercises you can try:

1.      Basic breathing exercise

This calming breathing technique takes just a few minutes and can be done anywhere. You will get the most benefit if you do it regularly, as part of your daily routine.

  • You can do this exercise standing up, sitting in a chair that supports your back, or lying down on a bed or yoga mat on the floor. Make yourself as comfortable as you can and loosen any clothes that restrict your breathing.

  • Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.

  • Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

  • Breath in gently and regularly. It can be helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. (You may not be able to reach 5 at first, in this case start with a lower number.)

  • Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful.

  • Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.

2.      Box breathing

Box breathing is helpful when you are experiencing extreme stress.  This is a very deep breathing exercise. Slowing down the breath allows carbon dioxide to build up in the blood, which stimulates the vagus nerve. This in turn helps to regulate the autonomic nervous system,  producing feelings of calmness throughout the body.

  • Inhale for a count of 4 

  • Hold your breath for a count of 4

  • Exhale for a count of 4

  • Hold your breath for a count of 4

  • Repeat

  • Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.

3.      7:11 breathing

It is important to realise that it is the out-breaths in particular that stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Breathing techniques with longer out-breaths than in-breaths are therefore even more effective at lowering emotional arousal.  The 7:11 breathing technique is one of these techniques.

  • Breathe in for a count of 7.

  • Breathe out for a count of 11.

  • Ensure that when breathing in you are doing deep ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ (your diaphragm moves down and pushes your stomach out as you breathe in), rather than shallower, higher lung breathing.

  • If you find that it’s difficult to breathe in and out to the counts of 7 and 11, then start with breathing in for 3 and out for 5.  The key thing is that the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.

  • Continue for 5-10 minutes, or longer if you have time – and enjoy the calming effect it will have on your mind and body.

If you would like to have a go at this breathing technique in a supported way, try one of these free breathing space sessions run by our facilitators at Fresh Air Fridays.

4.      Mindful breathing

Mindful breathing is a basic yet powerful mindfulness meditation practice. The idea is simply to focus your attention on your breathing—to its natural rhythm and flow and the way it feels on each inhale and exhale.

  • Find a comfortable position for the body.  I would recommend a seated position as it helps keep the body awake and energised.  You can also try lying flat on your back or standing upright.

  • Gently allow your eyes to close.  If you’re more comfortable with your eyes open, soften your gaze and allow your eyes to relax and rest on one spot.  The aim is to minimise distractions during this exercise.

  • Bring your awareness to the abdomen.  Relaxing the muscles there, see if you can feel the natural rise and fall of the abdomen as you breathe.

  • Move your awareness up to the chest.  As you inhale, tune in to the expansion of the lungs and the rising of the chest.  As you exhale, feel the contraction and movement of your chest muscles.  See if you can follow the feeling of the breath from the beginning of your inhalation through to the end of your exhalation. 

  • Now bring your attention to the nostrils.  The feeling of the breath may be more subtle here.  Try taking a deep breath to see what is present for you. You may notice a slight sensation at the tip of the nose as you breathe in.  You may notice the breath is slightly warmer on the way out.

  • When the mind wanders, gently guide it back and refocus on the direct experience of the breath.

  • Continue to observe the breath for a minute or two.

  • When you’re ready open your eyes again. As you regularly practise this exercise, aim to start bringing this awareness with you into your daily life.

If you prefer a guided mindful breathing practice, here’s one to try

Whichever breathing exercise you decide to try, aim to practice regularly to build your emotional resilience as this will make the biggest difference to your life. Remember, your breath is a constant in your life that you can return to anytime you need to feel more centred.

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