Let’s Get Back to Breathing: The Importance of Breathing for Mental Health

a person meditating next to a large colorful brain

Psychologist dr Kimberly MascaroBy Kimberly R Mascaro, PhD

Psychologist in Auburn

September 26, 2020

Let’s Get Back to Breathing:
The Importance of Breathing for Mental Health

I still recall the day when I learned to breathe. It was in Mary’s office. She was the therapist I stuck with longest (Yep, a lot longer than the previous ones). Mary knew me well and the high stress that comes with surviving a doctoral program.

To engage (and settle) my analytical mind, which was running the show for years, she taught me how shallow breathing patterns are often the result of life’s traumas: a sort of cause and effect relationship between experience and breath. More importantly, I learned from her that there are ways we can breathe that support our body’s physiological processes, helping to ‘reset’ the autonomic nervous system.

Your Breath Can Affect Your Well Being

We don’t need convincing on why we need to breathe. Yet, we may need a reminder as to why it’s best to breathe consciously, with awareness. Study after study shows us that intentional, abdominal breathing has direct positive affects on the body and mind. I believe this to be wonderful news; After all, it is free and can be done anywhere, at any time. Stressors do not have to rule over us! By just a few minutes spent each day on the practices I’ll be describing below, one can invoke healing in the immune and nervous systems. This stuff calms jittery mental states as well. Can’t we all use some gentle support during these challenging times?

Shallow Breathing Is Bad

When I teach conscious breathing to my clients, I like to offer a demonstration first. I do this by placing one hand on my chest and the other hand over my belly. Then, I simply observe. I may even close my eyes. Give it a try. Which hand is moving more – the top hand or the bottom hand? This ‘check-in’ is informative. Am I’m primarily breathing into my chest (known as shallow breathing)? Or am I taking in a fuller, more expansive breath so that my belly expands? Clearly, we want the latter. Now that we’ve assessed our breathing, we check in, verbally, and the client takes a turn. Next, we can make corrections if needed.

Belly Breathing

As for making adjustments, if my breathing or my client’s breathing is primarily in the chest region, we can consciously imagine the next inhalation moving down a little further into the body. If it’s helpful, we can imagine a favorite color swirling through the next inhaling breath as we visualize or sense it moving downward, filling the lungs. It’s important to be gentle here and move ahead at an easy, comfortable pace. Take your time — as many breaths as it takes — until abdominal breathing becomes familiar again. This should not be a scary or anxiety-producing experience. As suggested, this can be done by taking turns with the client or done together at the same time. Furthermore, it’s best to return to this practice at the beginning of each session, making small improvements, rather than forcing a shift to take place.

The 4:8 Breathing Technique

Once belly-breathing becomes the norm, I like to share other breathing techniques that help support the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as ‘the brakes’). Those that I share here come out of the yogic traditions and are very effective. Allow me to introduce the 4:8 breathing technique, if this is new territory for you. It’s a wonderful technique for every therapist toolbox. The 4:8 breathing technique is carried out by inhaling for 4 seconds, pausing for a second, then exhaling for 8 seconds. Try it out for yourself. So easy and effective, right? I like to do this for about 5 rounds or so. At that point I am really starting to notice the effect. The 4:8 breathing technique is just so soothing.

Sheetali Breath

Another slow, rhythmic breathing technique to enhance a state of calm was taught to me last year when I was completing my certification in a form of guided meditation known as yoga nidra. The technique is called sheetali breath and is also rather simple. For this technique, we inhale through the nose, followed by a brief pause. Then, exhale through the mouth while imaging that you are blowing the air out through a straw. Actually purse the lips on each exhale and watch everything slow down. You can do this with the aid of your imagination – there is no need to use an actual straw. So what do you think? Do you feel a little more relaxed now?

Counting Down

A final technique I’d like to share here involves counting. This technique reminds me of my days in hypnotherapy school. Basically we are mentally counting down with each inhalation and exhalation, from 10 down to one. Some people recommend counting only the inhalations or the exhalations, while others recommend counting both. So, it would look like this: ‘10 I am inhaling…10 I am exhaling…9 I am inhaling…9 I am exhaling…8 I am inhaling,…’ and so on. Remember that this is carried out silently, mentally. When I was training in hypnotherapy, I was reminded that counting down (not up) was important to encourage greater levels of relaxation. This ‘counting down’ technique can serve as an introductory mindfulness practice for those entering this territory.

a quote about how breathing is good for you

The Mind and Body Are Linked

By now we are familiar with the correlation between stress and early disease onset. In our go-go-go society, conscious breathing has become a necessity. Not only will our physical bodies benefit from these practices, but so will our mind. After all, the mind and body are linked – they make up a whole. You could even say that they are one. While the techniques I shared above can be used anytime, anywhere, I find that they are a perfect way to begin each day as well as close out the evening, or be carried out right at bedtime. That’s because an AM breathing practice sets the tone for the day, while the PM practice supports the melting away of stress and the release of the day’s residue. It even adds to a solid sleep hygiene routine. With consistent practice, I expect that you will see a difference, along with your clients. I know I did.

If you’d like stress management or sleep hygiene consultation, know that I am here to support you with your health goals. I can assist you in breathwork and in building a mediation practice as well. I also offer dreamwork, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, and yoga nidra (a sleep-based meditation), in addition to holistic counseling services.

About the Author

Psychologist dr Kimberly MascaroKimberly R. Mascaro, PhD is an author, somatic psychologist, certified yoga nidra facilitator and licensed psychotherapist in private practice with office locations in Auburn and Nevada City, CA. She offers telehealth services as well. Dr. Mascaro supports adult individuals on their personal and spiritual growth journeys through developing self-care routines, meditation and dreamwork practices, hypnotherapy, and art. She specializes in women’s issues, offering assistance to women navigating life’s big transitions. Dr. Mascaro can be contacted at www.ConsciousChimera.com

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