The way you breathe affects your whole body and how you feel.
That means if you change the way you breathe you can change the way you feel. In fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to change the way you feel.
I can personally attest to this, as I’ve come to really love using breathing techniques. I use them to calm down, manage stress and anxiety, to relax and to help me sleep. They are great in the most challenging moments of motherhood, when I’m emotionally triggered or feeling overwhelmed. They help me practice self-compassion and give me the pause that I need to make better decisions.
It almost sounds too simple, doesn’t it?
Something that you do all day and all night long, without even thinking about it, can change the way you feel and help you cope with motherhood (and life!).
Well, as I always say, it’s often the simple things that are both the most effective and the most overlooked. Breathing is a great example of exactly that.
How can breathing techniques help me?
When we are stressed, tense, anxious, overwhelmed or feeling less than great, we tend to take short, shallow breaths and which only reach the top of our lungs (chest breathing). This signals to your brain that you are in distress. Once your brain receives this message, it perpetuates the chest breathing and reinforces the heightened feelings. This is your fight or flight response and if you were really in danger or you needed to act quickly, this state would be useful. But in everyday life, staying in a state of heightened stress for too long can cause your physical and mental health to suffer.
To see if you are chest breathing, place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. See which hand rises more as you breathe. You are chest breathing, if the hand on your chest rises more.
Deep breathing, also called abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, brings your breath all the way to your abdomen (in this case your abdomen will rise more).
This type of breathing triggers the opposite response to fight or flight. It relaxes your nervous system, slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and relaxes your muscles. It helps you rest and brings you out of your heightened emotional state.
The magic lies in the exhalations, because they, in particular, are creating the response. That’s why long exhales are part of most breathing techniques. The longer the exhale, the more effective the breathing technique will be at quickly calming you down.
So, by working on your breathing techniques you can:
- Better manage stress and lower overall stress levels in the longer term
- Increase energy and focus
- Feel rejuvenated
- Fall asleep more quickly and enjoy better quality sleep
- Improve motivation, productivity and problem solving ability.
Deep breathing has also been shown to help relieve pain and fight illness. And importantly, when you’re calmer overall, you’ll make better parenting choices and respond more positively to your children.
6 Calming breathing techniques to try
So, lovely, would you like to try this simple and incredibly effective way to calm yourself down?
Here are 6 calming breathing techniques that you can try. I have used all of these myself. I tend to choose different techniques depending on how stressed I am, where I am, how much time I have, and how likely I am to be interrupted.
You can do these for as long as you need, or set a timer for a couple of minutes, if that’s all you have. While they are most effective when you are 100% focused on your breath, I have even used them while I’m doing simple manual tasks like washing the dishes.
It’s really important to make sure you are deep breathing, rather than chest breathing, in all of these techniques.
Notice how you feel as you try each breathing technique, and how your mental, physical and emotional state has changed afterwards.
1. Equal breathing
Equal breathing involves taking smooth, slow breaths with your inhalations and exhalations being the same length. Sitting comfortably upright is the best position for this technique, as it increases the capacity of your lungs.
a) Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose (your abdomen should rise) for about 4 seconds.
b) Hold for 1 or 2 seconds.
c) Exhale slowly through your nose for about 4 seconds (your abdomen should fall). Exhaling through your nose limits the air flow and helps you breath more slowly.
d) Wait a few seconds before repeating.
You can lengthen the inhales and exhales but keep them the same length.
2. 4-7-8 Breathing
You can do this exercise either sitting comfortably upright or lying down. The effects of this breathing technique increase with time and practice.
a) Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose for 4 seconds.
b) Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
c) Exhale slowly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for 8 seconds. Try to get all the air out of your lungs.
d) Repeat up to 3 times if you are just starting out and up to 7 times with practice.
3. Pursed lips breathing
This is a great technique to use when you can’t actually stop what you are doing altogether. I find it is really quick and it doesn’t require exact counting of seconds. It’s really effective mid-tantrum (your child’s tantrum, that is!) or in a heated situation with other people.
a) Inhale slowly through your nose. A normal breath is fine.
b) Exhale through pursed lips. This forces the breath to come out slower than usual. Make your exhale at least twice as long as your inhale.
c) Repeat as many times as you need.
4. Breathing colours
I love the visual nature of this technique. It can be done while sitting comfortably upright or lying down.
a) Close your eyes. Imagine calm as a colour. What colour would it be?
b) Now imagine stress, anxiousness or whatever other emotion you are currently feeling as a colour. What would it be?
c) Take a slow, deep breath in while imagining breathing in your calm colour.
d) Hold for 1 or 2 seconds.
e) Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth (with a whooshing sound) while imagining breathing out your stress colour. Make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation.
f) Repeat as many times as you need.
5. Body scan
This is my favourite calming breathing technique for bedtime. It’s one of the things that has helped me get to sleep in just minutes as opposed to an hour.
In this technique, you will focus your attention on different parts of your body, starting at your feet and working up, or vice versa (I like to start with my head because I hold more tension in my upper body and sometimes fall asleep mid-scan!).
You can do this lying down or sitting. Since this can take 10-15 mins, you may want to put a pillow under your knees for comfort if you are lying down.
Start like this:
a) Close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a minute or so, until you start to relax a little.
b) Focus on the top of your head, forehead and eyes. Notice any sensations you feel; for example, is it hot, cold, tingling, tight, loose, itchy, twitching?
c) Take a slow, deep breath in while focusing on the sensations.
d) Hold for 1 or 2 seconds.
e) As you exhale slowly, breathe deeply into the area of focus, releasing any tension you might feel. Feel free to take a couple of breaths for each area if needed. Notice each area relax before moving to the next.
f) Move to the next area; your mouth, jaw, tongue. Repeat the process.
Continue this until you reach your toes. Then, take a moment to relax and notice how your body feels. Slowly open your eyes and move your body.
6. Box breathing
As in equal breathing, box breathing inhalations and exhalations are equal in length. Consequently, this is an excellent balancing technique, and can be used anywhere. I like to imagine tracing or drawing a box shape as I use this technique.
a) Take a slow, deep inhale for 4 seconds.
b) Hold for 4 seconds.
c) Slowly exhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
d) Hold for 4 seconds.
e) Repeat as many times as you need.
So there you have it. Six calming breathing techniques to help you better cope with the challenges of motherhood and life. Focusing on your breath makes a huge difference to how you manage stress and get through the day. In turn, this affects your responses and interactions with others, including your children.
The more you practice these techniques, the more powerful they become, so use them often.
Most importantly, find the calming breathing techniques that are most effective for you. Try them out, and see which techniques give you the quickest and best results.
Which one will you try first, lovely mum?