Conscious breathing practices can help you manage stress, anxiety, frustration, and anger. Not only are they simple but powerful practices but they do not cost a cent. Nor do they require props or changes to your environment. All you need is you, wherever you happen to be at the moment.
And, the more you get into a routine of practicing conscious breathing exercises, the better you’ll become at doing them, which will give you the ability to reduce stress, anger, and frustration even easier than before.
What is Conscious Breathing?
Many types of conscious breathing practices exist. At root though, conscious breathing is noticing how you take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide from your body. Basically, it’s just directing attention to your breathing. And when you do, you’d be surprised at what you haven’t noticed. Many of us don’t even realize, for instance, how often we are holding our breath or barely breathing during parts of the day. Enough of this can affect your energy levels and produce other health complications. In her new book Breath LOVE, Lauren Chelec Cafritz talks about how transformational her transition from shallow breathing, which reflected a fear state, to her practice of conscious and connected breathing was to her well-being. She recounts how diaphragmatic breathing sent a signal to her entire being that she was safe, which is fundamental to healing. I had a similar experience.
Mental Benefits of Conscious Breathing
When we feel threatened, our body naturally activates the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response (FFF) to prepare it to either run, fight the threat, or freeze in place.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we experience the physical sensations we get when we feel stress, anxiety, or severe anger and frustration. These can include sweaty palms, increasing heart rate, and faster breathing.
Here’s the thing: the FFF response can be activated even if it isn’t a real threat to your physical well-being. Your body’s nervous system doesn’t necessarily know the difference between emotional turmoil and a physical threat. The FFF response reflects your perceptions, including your experience with negative situations. These situations could involve conflict in personal or professional relationships, health challenges, or even walking across a busy street.
To signal to your body that the fight or flight response is not necessary, you must trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system produces the opposite response to the FFF, causing a relaxation response instead.
One other important aspect of the Fight or Flight Response – it shifts the blood flow. To prepare you to fight or to get ready to run from a perceived threat, blood is directed away from the brain to the extremities in the body, such as the arms, legs, hands, and feet.
With conscious breathing the blood is redirected back to the brain so you can focus your energy on thinking through what is before you and how you would like to proceed. In other words, it is a practice that can help you act more intentionally and not on automatic.
As a result, conscious breathing can help you, among other things:
- Manage stress better
- Reduce worry and anxiety
- Focus, including in challenging moments
- Strengthen your lung function
- Improve circulation and blood flow
- Sleep better
How to Practice Conscious Breathing
While there are many conscious breathing practices, breathing from the diaphragm rather than the chest plays an important role in helping you to calm your body’s nervous system. When you first start it is helpful to practice in a quiet space without interruptions.
- Many of us breath chest deep. You can get greater benefits from the conscious breathing process through diaphragmatic breathing. You’ll notice that is how a newborn baby breathes. Put your hand on your stomach. Relax and gently breathe in deeply, without push or strain, through your nose. As you breathe in, your abdomen will rise. Then, gently exhale. You can feel your abdomen go back down on the outbreath.
- You can incorporate different breathing patterns as part of your conscious breathing practice. One of my favorite breathing exercises to calm the nervous system is the extended exhale where the exhale lasts about twice as long as the inhale. If, for example, you breathe in for 3 counts, then you breathe out for 6 counts. It may take practice before you can double the length of the exhale. Just do what is comfortable for you.
While conscious breathing may not feel natural in the beginning, it will become an instinctive part of your life with practice. Just like with other contemplative practices, bring a soft awareness to your breath and a patient attitude. And as always, do what is best for you, taking into account any respiratory or other conditions you may have. Conscious breathing is also integral to meditation and mindful movement practices such as yoga and qigong. If you’re interested in learning more about my meditation, mindfulness, and mindful movement workshops, upcoming workshops are listed below and you can visit my website or contact me here.