“Breathe…just breathe. Slow down and breathe.”

I find myself repeating this phrase quite a bit in my life, but in two very different contexts. One is in my office when a client is about to be overcome by anxiety and they feel like they are about to succumb to a panic attack. The other is in when I repeat it to my self (silently or out loud), usually before I get up and speak, or just in the midst of stressful situations.

Last week we briefly looked at the concept of mindfulness and how it is defined.

Today I just want to briefly look at the importance of focused breathing as a practice that helps us stay mindful and grounded in the moment. And though there are lots of reasons to focus on breathing, three have jumped out at me a lot more prominently in the last year.

First, the word anxiety has some of its roots in the Latin word angere, which convey the meaning of “choking off” or “closing/shutting in.” So one of the first things that we need to remind ourselves or others of when they are anxious is to simply breathe. Because sometimes it literally feels like we can’t breathe, and other times if feels like our world is closing in when we are anxious .For a good treatment of the word anxiety, check out Allan Hugh Cole Jr.’s book, Be Not Anxious: Pastoral Care of Disquieted Souls.

Second, for the Greeks, the word for mind or brain, phren, relates to the diaphragm. For the Greeks there was a connection of the mind and the body, and the functions of both were interconnected through breath.

Third, I read this article in The Atlantic (There’s No Such Thing as Everlasting Love–According to Science) back in January that talked about the importance of the vagus nerve in relational connecting with others. They write:

“The vagus nerve’s potential for love can actually be measured by examining a person’s heart rate in association with his breathing rate, what’s called “vagal tone.” Having a high vagal tone is good: People who have a high “vagal tone” can regulate their biological processes like their glucose levels better; they have more control over their emotions, behavior, and attention; they are socially adept and can kindle more positive connections with others; and, most importantly, they are more loving.”

Okay. I think you get the point. Breathing is important. And though this may seem elementary to a lot of people, trust me, it’s not. It is an highly overlooked skill. That’s why everyone from world class athletes and musicians, to couples in the midst of couple’s therapy, are encouraged to focus on their breathing.

So let me suggest an exercise for you to practice. There are lots of books out there that will suggest something similar, but here is what I have found to be helpful in my own life.

  1. Pay attention. Do a one day experiment where you pay particular attention to your breathing. What do you notice? Does it come from breaths deep in the diaphragm, or from shallow places in the chest? Is it slow or is it hurried? What is happening when your breath speeds up? What is happening when it is nice and slow?
  2. Practice. Set aside 5 minutes each day to practice breathing. Find a comfortable place to sit or lay down on your back. Relax your neck, shoulders, arms, legs, etc. Set a timer for 5 minutes. And then for 5 minutes practice breathing. Don’t try to control it or change it, rather just practice without thinking about it too much.
  3. Technique. Pay attention to the breath coming in your nostrils and leaving your nostrils or mouth. That is your focus in this exercise.
  4. Stay focused. Anytime your mind starts to wander (which will happen instantly), your job is to bring your focus back to your breath.
  5. Evaluate. After one week of practicing this every day I want you again to repeat step one. See what you notice.

That’s it. There is no “magic” or “silver bullet” solution in this practice. It is simply just focusing on your breathing for the sake of it.

But what this practice does allow you is the ability to stay in the moment. To stay grounded and centered. And over time this skill will come in handy. It will help you deal with anxiety and stress. It will help you connect with others. It will help you stay focused in times when that is needed. And hopefully over time it isn’t just a skill but a way of life for you.

I’ve been practicing this for quite a while and in my opinion it has helped me be a better husband, father, friend and therapist. It is something I practice with my clients and it has helped many of them communicate and connect better in their own life and with their partners.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about how I use my breathing in my prayer life and how it has helped me slow down and be present with God.

Do you already practice focused breathing? If so, what are your thoughts?

If you don’t practice focused breathing, are you hesitant to? Why? Why not?