Just Keep Breathing

Written By Dr. Stacy Storey


I am sure that everyone reading this has been told to just calm down and take a few deep breaths at some point, or you have said that to your kiddos. Why do people suggest deep breathing? What is the psychological connection between breathing and our mental health? Today we are going to explore deep breathing, and the connection between breathing and how we actually calm down.

Deep breathing is a fantastic tool to have for anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health concerns. Deep breathing helps to signal our brains that it is time to relax. How does it work? When we are triggered or anxious our sympathetic nervous system snaps into gear. We start to feel our heart rate increase, start breathing more shallow and faster, and our blood pressure will increase too. When we start to feel ourselves go into the panic mode, we can either let our bodies react or work on taking back the control. In a previous article we looked at the mind body connection. Now we will look at how that mind body connection really works. When we are tapped into how our bodies react to various mental situations, we can start to connect with those reactions. For some people it is an increase in the heart rate, for others it is a pit in the stomach, or even sweating. Understanding those physical cues, although different for everyone, can help us to better understand ourselves individually. When we feel that switch in our bodies, we can start to do the work to calm back down when the threat or the stressful situation are over. Deep breathing is the best tool to came back to baseline. The primary concern that I have heard regarding deep breathing is that it does not work. It is important to remember that our minds and bodies truly are connected, if our mind is saying this will never work, then our body is going to believe that. Also, there are several different options for deep breathing, give them all a shot and see what works best for you personally.

There are several different styles for deep breathing, all of which have the same end result, calming the sympathetic nervous system and resetting our minds and bodies. Belly breathing is a technique that can be done sitting or standing. It is recommended that you place one hand on your belly, and one on your chest. With all deep breathing the inhale is through the nose and the exhale will be through the mouth. With belly breathing, with the inhale through the nose you should feel the belly expanding outwards. You can close your eyes and visualize trying to get all of the inhalation air into your belly. Then with the exhale you will feel that hand on your stomach start to go back down. It is recommended to repeat this 3-10 times until you have calmed back down to baseline.

The second style of deep breathing we are going to explore is square breathing. Square breathing is nice because it is also a visual style of breathing. For square breathing you will start sitting or laying down, similar to the belly breathing. You can place your hands on your belly and chest, or just to your side. Close your eyes and breath out all of the air you have. To start you will breathe in your nose for 4 counts, at the top of the breath hold for 4 counts, then go back down by breathing out of your mouth for four counts, finally finish the square by holding the exhale for the final four counts. This style of breathing allows you to visualize a square as you breathe in that is going up the side of the square, holding at the top is going across the top of the square, breathing out is going down the other side, and holding the exhale finishes the bottom of the square. The visualization also allows you to focus on something other than the triggering thought or situation.

Practice these styles of breathing even when you are not triggered or anxious. You might notice that overtime you will just automatically go to these options when you are triggered. Working with and teaching your body various tools to support it when it is stressed will help to reduce the triggered moments, and the severity.