Paced breathing & other breathing techniques

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Breathing is important but I'm sure I didn't need to tell you that. It is automatic. Something that we just do without having to pay attention to it at a conscious level. It just carries on while we go about our day.

When we are calm and happy, our breathing is relaxed, measured and regular and supports us as it should. However, when we are stressed and anxious, it starts to change. It can become shallow, faster, irregular, and sometimes we can even hold our breath. In some people their breathing can become so out of control that they find themselves hyperventilating which can make them feel light headed and weak.

Whilst breathing is typically an automatic behaviour, it is something that we can also take conscious control of and make changes to. Changing our breathing has a physiological effect on the body which in turn can affect how we are feeling and thinking. This is because breathing techniques which involve regulating your breath, slowing it down, and making the breaths deeper trigger a relaxation response within our bodies. This relaxation response reduces the neurotransmitters in the brain which are associated with stress helping you to feel calmer.

Of course people who experience breathing irregularities when they are stressed or anxious will benefit greatly from taking control over their breathing but you don't have to be experiencing noticeable breathing irregularities to benefit from paced breathing or breathing exercises though. Typically, we only breath in a relaxed, measured way when it is safe to do so. So by consciously controlling our breathing, whether it is causing us a problem or not, it sends a nice clear message to our brain (and our body) that we are safe and that it is ok to relax.

I am going to talk about a couple of breathing techniques that I often recommend to my clients.

1) Paced Breathing
Paced breathing is a slow, deliberate deep breathing exercise which is sustained for a specific period of time. Typically we are aiming to take a total of 6 to 8 breaths per minute. Using paced breathing for 10-15 minutes each day can really have a positive affect on your levels of stress and anxiety. Paced breathing has been researched widely to examine its efficacy and it has been found to be beneficial for a wide variety of issues, both physical and psychological.

There are a number of ratios recommended for paced breathing. The most popular one is 7-11 breathing where you breathe in to the count of 7 and breathe out to the count of 11. Some people find this ratio a little tricky at first and reduce it a little, perhaps to 5-9, until they get used to taking longer breathes. Another popular one is 6-2-6-2 breathing where you breathe in to the count of 6, hold it for 2, breathe out to the count of 6, and hold it for 2. If you are in the habit of holding your breathe, I would recommend that you go for the 7-11 breathing technique as opposed to the 6-2-6-2 as the latter one could potentially reinforce your current habit of holding your breath.

There are lots of great apps out there that can really help guide you through paced breathing. They indicate when to breath in and for how long, when to hold your breath and for how long, and when to breath out and for how long. These apps can be useful when you first start out doing paced breathing so that you have the guidance but once you have become more familiar with it, you will be able to do it without the app which perhaps will make it a more flexible technique for you to use. I use the rather imaginatively named Paced Breathing app but there are many others to choose from. There is also a website called eXHALeR which can guide you through paced breathing.

2) Circular Breathing
This is a new favourite technique of mine which I learnt at the UK Hypnosis Convention from hypnotist James Tripp. I would recommend closing your eyes to do this if you can as it allows you to focus more on what is happening. Become aware of your breathing. Notice your in breath and out breath. Notice that there is a peak to both breaths, with the in breath, just where it peaks before becoming the out breath and the out breath, just where it peaks before becoming the in breath. Notice those peaks and the sensations you experience at them. Then start to make your breathing circular. A constant flow so that there are no peaks. Soften the transition between breathing in and out so it feels smooth and constant.

3) Heart Breathing
This is another technique that I learnt at the UK Hypnosis Convention from hypnotherapist Melissa Tiers. Again, I would recommend closing your eyes for this one. Place your hand over your heart area. Focus your attention on where your hand meets your chest. Focus in on your heart. Notice it beating, any movement felt by your hand as it rests there. Then imagine that you can breath in and out through your heart. Take a few nice slow, deep breathes. Allow your breaths to be smooth, unforced and relaxed. Notice what it might look like and what it might feel like if you could breath in and out through your heart. Whilst you connect with that sensation, create a feeling of appreciation, of gratitude to boost your sense of general wellbeing. Think about what you are grateful for, appreciate in life and/or what has been good about your day. I like to do this at the end of the day as it puts me in a nice positive mood ready for bed.

4) Hand Breathing
This is quite similar to the previous technique in that we are assigning the ability to breath to another part of our body, this time the hands. Close your eyes and imagine that you can breath in through your fingertips. With the air, comes calmness. Imagine it spreading throughout your whole body. Imagine what it might feel like and what it might look like to breath in through your fingertips and have that calmness spread throughout your body. You might include colours and/or sensations to what you're imagining. Then, imagine that you can breath out through your feet. With the air, you breath out any stress or anything else that you wish to get rid of (negativity, fatigue, tension, unwanted habits etc.).

5) Breathe in Calm
I've already briefly covered this one in the previous technique but this can be done without closing your eyes or the need to visualise anything. Just suggest to yourself that with every breath you breathe in, you breathe in calm and for every breath out, you breathe out any stress, any tension, any anxiety and fatigue. Breathe in calm and breathe out stress. You might also like to tag on an affirmation such as "I feel calm" or "I am relaxing" or perhaps just "breathe in calm, breathe out stress" with each breathe.

These are just a handful of breathing techniques that I use with my clients but there are so many more out there. What's great about breathing techniques is that they are free, simple and everyone can do them. They really do make a difference. Let me know how you get on!