Ask a Therapist: Column #7 On Breathwork
Q: In the last column you talked about the reasons that breathwork is important to manage anxiety. Could you provide some practical examples of strategies that we could use?
A: There are many techniques for deep breathing that can be explored easily with a Google or YouTube search bar; however, it is putting these techniques into practice that tends to be challenging for people. Often, having simple go-to options is ideal so that you can build a habit of anchoring to your breath.
The primary goal of deep breathing is to move away from our tendency to breathe in a shallow manner that expands our chests instead of our stomachs. You can check to see how you are breathing in any given moment by simply placing your hand on those areas to notice where the breath is expanding in your body. Typically, and certainly when we are anxious, our breath is shallow and quick. In breathwork, you want to remind your body to slow down and go deeper by pulling the breath all the way into your core.
The techniques that I recommend also provide a mental focus for attention that doesn’t require intense or complex thinking to use. Part of effective breathwork is the choice to hit pause and take a quick and quiet mental break from the noise of the day and such methods provide just enough distraction to be effective.
The first option I call the 3-3-6 method. This method involves slowly counting to 3 on the inhale (pulling the breath fully in to expand the stomach, usually through the nose), holding the breath for 3 counts, and then releasing the breath fully while counting to 6 (usually through the mouth). The numbers and counting are just enough of a distraction and focus that your mind can divert its attention from the negative or ruminating thought patterns and instead create some peace in body and mind.
Another option is more visual or tactile, (depending on how you implement it) and this can appeal to people who respond to imagery or touch more than numbers. This strategy is called the box method and it is practiced in one of two ways. In both cases you are choosing to trace the outer perimeter of a square as you breathe.
In the first variation, you can simply close your eyes and visualize the outline of a box in your mind’s eye. On the inhale, you mentally trace the first side of the box, slowly imagining that you are drawing the line as the breath enters the body. Then you proceed to draw another side while holding the breath, then an exhale follows for a third side, and finally you will hold again as you trace the final side and return to your starting point in the square.
The other option is to take your index finger and physically trace it around a box perimeter as described in the visualizing option but on your thigh (or other surface) so that you can tangibly feel the square being drawn as you breathe.
With both variations, the more slowly and deliberately you trace the box, the more your breath will have time to deepen and create a sense of calm.
Practicing 5 or 6 rounds of the 3-3-6 or box breath method will often be enough to reset your system but you can use these strategies over the course of a specific time period if it feels helpful. Simply set a timer to keep you focused on the practice for a designated amount of time. This short meditation of even 2 or 3 minutes can make a big difference.
The beauty of these simple methods is that they are accessible to you at any time and in any situation and the people around you do not even have to know that you are using them!
I often encourage clients to create a habit by attaching their deep breathing technique to a common, frequent occurrence in the day. Perhaps you try a few rounds every time you take a seat, or have a cup of tea, or stop at a red light or stop sign when you are driving.
If you train yourself to do this as you go about your regular day, you will find that you are creating a proactive habit that is restorative to your mental health. It will release the natural stress build up that each day brings and it reminds your brain – and your body – that you are safe and in control.
While I have provided only two simple strategies today, there are many options available to you to suit your preferences and needs. It is important to find something that works for you so that you will be consistent in practicing a live-giving, stress-reducing connection to your breath.
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