So, you think you can breathe?

Most people could benefit from slowing down and relaxing a bit more. We get caught up in our busy lives, rushing around, and all of a sudden it's the end of the day. Then it's the end of the week. And before we know it, another year has passed. 

How many times over the past year did you purposely slow down and relax?

Really slow down, I mean. Stop, breathe, connect with the moment. Focus on calming down any physiological stress or tension in your body. Maybe you had a massage a few months ago, and there WAS that week off over Christmas. But, actually, that week was mostly spent running back and forth between various relatives and trying to manage overtired and overstimulated children. And while you were having that massage you were actually planning your partner's birthday present for next week and what you had to get done at work that afternoon. Hmmm. 

The problem is often our attitude. I'm not saying we don't believe relaxing is important. But... how often do you prioritise rushing over relaxing? Our attitude and judgements make this really hard. We often don't truly believe that it needs to come first, or that other things or other people can generally wait. Instead, we rush all day and then at the end of the day we flop on the couch and scroll through facebook for the rest of the evening. Yes, when sitting down are bodies are slowing down. Technically. But this doesn't really give our minds an opportunity to slow down too. 

This is where breathing comes in. 

By purposefully and intentionally stopping to prioritise relaxation (such as breathing practice), we are changing our behaviours. Changing our behaviours can help us to develop new habits, spend more time doing what is meaningful and brings vitality to our lives, and help us to challenge some of those unhelpful attitudes and judgements. Breathing helps us focus, and calms down our physiological stress response. 

But I've been breathing my whole life, I hear you say. 

Well, of course. But automatic, everyday breathing isn't the same as intentional, focused breathing. What's worse is when our everyday breathing becomes stressed, shallow, and a little too fast. Diaphragmatic (or slow, deep, "belly") breathing can help us undo this, by using our lungs to their full potential. See, when we are stressed we can hyperventilate, or "over-breathe". This results in an imbalance between our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in our body. By breathing too quickly, we get a sharp drop in our carbon dioxide levels. This causes our blood vessels to constrict, chest pain or heart palpitations, dizziness, and a sensation of not getting enough air (amongst other things). Although this isn't dangerous, it is uncomfortable and if you are prone to anxiety, can lead you to misinterpret what is happening in your body as something really bad, leading to higher stress and over-breathing even more! Hello, panic attack! Slowing down your breaths, and using your full lungs to breathe deeply assists us to re-balance our carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. Doing this intentionally, with an attitude that relaxation is essential and is worth prioritising over other less-essential parts of our lives, can help us start to slow down and relax. 

How do we breathe this way, then?

First, find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be interrupted for 10 minutes. A comfy place such as your bed or favourite chair works well. If all else fails, head to the toilet if that's the only place you won't be bothered. If you have young children, pick your time when someone else is around to help out, or when they are taking a nap. Or when Paw Patrol is on. Whatever works. Put on some slow, relaxing music or nature sounds. 

Start by breathing normally, about 3 seconds in - brief pause - 3 seconds out - brief pause. Gradually extend this to a four second cycle, and keep extending as far as it feels comfortable. Let your belly relax and extend. This is not the time for sucking your tummy in. Let your shoulders hang. Expel all the air from your lungs and allow them to refill. As you breathe in, imagine you are taking a huge whiff of something delicious. Freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies or the like. Breathe in a big lungful and allow your belly to expand. Pause, and breathe out like you are blowing on a spoonful of piping hot chicken soup. Enough to cool it, but not enough to splatter it everywhere. Chocolate-chip cookies - pause - chicken soup - pause. Chocolate-chip cookies - pause - chicken soup - pause. Focus your mind on the sensation and experience of breathing, and when you choose to finish, reflect on what it feels like in your body and what it was like to purposefully stop and prioritise your mental well-being. 

Try it. I'd love to hear how you go. 

Olivia Boer is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Healthy Mind Centre Launceston, a private allied health practice in Launceston, Tasmania. 

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