Over the years of providing psychotherapy I have often heard from clients that they are averse to taking deep breaths when coping with distressing thoughts or situations. I can understand this perspective, and it makes logical sense that thinking more about those distressing thoughts or situations would help you find a solution to your problems. But for many people, thinking more about these problems can lead to increased anxiety and result in long-term negative effects. This article works to shed light on the negative cycles our stressful thoughts can create and how deep breathing can break these negative cycles.
As humans, one of our initial instincts is to focus and replay stressful thoughts and situations in our mind with the hopes of finding a solution. When you are in a stressful situation or starting to panic, many times, we start to worry and replay things in your mind. You are not only thinking these things; often you can be feeling them. Your shoulders might tense, your stomach might tighten. Many physical things can change, but if we are too distracted by the distressing thoughts, you will not notice these changes in your body. Another major change is that your respiration can change to short and quick breaths, the same type of breaths that often come from intense exercise. Certain parts of your brain perceive this change in respiration as an indication of danger. Our distressing thoughts lead to bodily changes, which in turn escalates the threat in your mind, which can then intensify the distressing thoughts. It is a vicious circle. The repetition of this vicious cycle during stressful situations can cause long-term effects, including an increase in stress-related hormones in our body.
Here is where deep breaths come in. I like to imagine our focus on our deep breaths as one of the lifesaver rings you throw to people who have fallen in the water and need help. But instead of someone in danger in the water, we have our mind lashing around, lost and without direction. If we can focus on our breath, our mind can hold onto our lifesaver breath and hopefully interrupt this vicious circle. Then, we are in a better place to handle whatever adversity may arise. When you think of taking deep breaths, you will likely envision calming ambient music and someone speaking in a slow, soothing voice. These positive associations may help you feel calm when you take those breaths, but deep breathing has additional positive benefits.
So, what does deep breathing entail? You can find many great practices for deep breathing online, but I want focus on a few essential practices. In my practice, I have three key recommendations for obtaining the benefits of deep breathing. First, it is key to focus on your breath and how you are breathing. One way this can be accomplished is by focusing on feeling your breath go in through your nostrils and out through your mouth. The second essential practice is the type of deep breathing you do. Studies have demonstrated that deep, belly breathing is important to obtain the benefits of deep breathing. When your lungs expand from a deep breath, they push down on your diaphragm, causing your belly to expand. If you don’t feel your stomach expand as you inhale, you are not engaging your diaphragm, and you will not have the same benefits if you practiced belly breathing. Finally, it is also important to focus on the speed of your inhalations and exhalations. I suggest to my clients to count to three while they inhale, hold their breath for two counts, and then exhale to a count of four. Many find breathing apps with visualizations while you inhale and exhale to be extremely helpful.
If you get to a place where you change your respiration and are taking deep breaths instead of shallow, short breaths, you have changed the signals that are going to your brain. Now your brain is getting the signal that you are in a safe place. These deep breaths signify that the danger is gone, and it is safe to let your guard down. For problem-solving, it is very important to feel you are in a safe space. When we are scared or angry or many other strong emotions, it is more difficult to use our executive functioning. Deep breathing can break the cycle of distressing thoughts causing bodily changes, escalated threats, and intensified distressing thoughts.
So, the next time you feel your mind racing take deep, soothing breaths. Don’t take these breaths because you hear someone suggesting it. Instead, do it because you know these deep breaths signify you are safe and interrupt negative, stressful cycles. Try taking deep breaths and acknowledge that things are hard, with the knowledge you have to be in your best mindset to cope with adversity.
Learn more about the author of this post: Robert Yata, LCPC