When I worked as an emergency room nurse, where tension was often high and patience short, I learned the power of taking a deep breath. It’s unrealistic to ask someone to “relax” when they are in pain, anxious about what might be wrong with them, and have absolutely no control over their environment. Whether a patient was in hard labor or having chest pain or a panic attack, focusing on deep breathing always decreased their anxiety and de-escalated the situation.
We all have situations when taking a deep breath can help de-escalate a situation or just make us feel better. Deep breathing is easy and accessible to everyone. Here are my favorite three exercises.
Place one hand on your belly, just below your navel. As you inhale through your nose, expand your belly as if you were blowing up a big balloon full of air until your lungs are filled to capacity. Pause for one second and then exhale slowly, smoothly, and completely, deflating the air out of your belly through your nose or mouth. Pause for one second and then start your round again and repeat four more times for a total of five breaths.
Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple exercise that helps you activate your diaphragm and breathe more deeply and slowly. During diaphragmatic breathing you use less energy, require less oxygen, and breathe more easily. This breathing technique also strengthens your abdominal muscles and diaphragm.
Inhale through your nose in three parts, pausing at three different levels of the body, and exhale all the air out in reverse order without pausing. Begin to inhale deeply through your nose to the level of your navel. Pause for one second. Draw in more breath and let your air expand to the level of your sternum. Pause for one second. Draw in the rest of your air and inhale to the level of your clavicle. Pause for one second. Now, exhale all the air out in reverse order through your nose or mouth, slowly without pausing. Repeat four more times for a total of five breaths.
The purpose of the three-part breath exercise is to help you unlearn the unhealthy pattern of taking in slow sips of breath through your nose or mouth. This breathing is deep and full. It ventilates all of the lobes in your lungs, allowing for an adequate exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which in turn helps dispel anxiety and induce a state of calmness.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This deep breathing may feel a little awkward initially, but it will become easier quickly with practice. Take your right hand and fold your index and middle fingers in, extending your right thumb and your right ring and right baby fingers. Bring your right thumb to your right nostril and lightly hold it there as you place your right ring finger lightly on your left nostril.
Start with an inhale on the left. Close the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Pause. Close the left nostril with your right ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Pause. Inhale through your right nostril. Pause. Close the right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through the left nostril. Repeat four more rounds for a total of five breaths (on each side). If you get mixed up on the different sides, it is not a big deal. Just make sure not to hold both sides of your nostrils at once, so you can get air in and out!
Breathing in through your left nostril will access the right “feeling” hemisphere of your brain, and breathing in through your right nostril will access the left “thinking” hemisphere of your brain. Consciously alternating your breath between either nostril will allow you to activate and access your whole brain.