When I talk to children about mental health and counselling, they commonly find it most amusing when I point out that many grown-ups don’t know how to breathe properly. It sounds ridiculous, but there is some truth to this. We all lead busy, sometimes stressful lives and do not tend to pay much attention to our breathing - it’s just something we do automatically.
Many of us are self-conscious of the extra weight we carry around our middles and spend a lot of time “sucking it in”, tensing the stomach muscles and breathing more from the upper chest and shoulders than from the abdomen. However, anyone who has done any Yoga or Tai Chi will know about the importance of abdominal breathing. This is where we allow ourselves to relax those tense stomach muscles and take bigger, deeper breaths that really fill our lungs to capacity. It’s often called belly-breathing because, when you are doing it correctly, you can feel (and see) your stomach rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation.
When we are tense or anxious, we often take short, sharp breaths. In contrast, when we are relaxed or asleep we tend to take longer, deeper breaths. Controlled, deep breathing is a key component of meditation or relaxation exercises. When we breathe in this way, we maximise the amount of oxygen that goes into our bloodstream and minimise muscular exertion. This known as eupnea, the ‘natural’ way all mammals breathe when in a state of relaxation. What’s really wonderful about abdominal breathing is that doing it can make us feel more relaxed, lower our blood pressure, and release stress-reducing endorphins. Those who practice and develop the skill find that a few deep abdominal breaths can help them quickly calm their nerves and make them feel more comfortable and confident.
It can be beneficial to count in your head whilst practicing abdominal breathing. Some people try to count to ten with each inhalation and exhalation. If this feels uncomfortable, counting slowly to four can work just as well. Other people simply count each exhalation. Counting doesn’t just help us keep track of how many breaths we have taken, it also helps to focus our mind on the task. As mentioned earlier, breathing is something that we normally do without thinking about it, but counting can help to maintain our awareness on the act of deep breathing and stop our attention wandering.
Try it now. Get yourself in a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Place your hands on your abdomen. Take a deep, slow breath in (through your nose, if possible) and feel your belly rise as your lungs fill with air. Hold your breath for a few seconds and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Don’t puff all the air out at once like you are blowing out the candles on a birthday cake! Purse your lips slightly and gently exhale for as long as feels comfortable. Repeat this process four or five times. It might take some practice, but stick with it and soon you’ll find yourself enjoying the relaxing benefits.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
01851 871094 / 07815662208