Using Breathing to Regulate Emotions
We all have heard to stop and take a deep breath if we’re overwhelmed. If you have ever taken the time to do this, you may have noticed that it helped. Maybe it helped some or a lot. Let’s talk about different kinds of breathing, what helps regulate emotions most and why.
Belly breathing is way of breathing that brings the breath to the bottom of our lungs to completely full our lungs. This is different than how breathe unconsciously throughout the day. In order to do belly breathing most effectively, we must relax the muscles of our chest and abdomen to allow the breath to fill our lungs completely. To start out, just slow down and be present with our breath. Then, slowly try to relax the muscles in our abdomen and bring the breath a bit deeper into your lungs. Continue to deepen your inhalation and exhalations. If your typical breathing rate is 2 counts in, 2 counts out, try to lengthen it slowly to 4 counts in, 4 counts out. How does that feel? You can try to make the exhalation slightly longer than the inhalation, maybe 4 breaths in, 5 breaths out. It is common at the beginning to feel short of breath after trying to change your breathing. If this happens, take time to regulate and try again. There is no right or wrong way to do deep breathing, as long as you are trying to lengthen your breath. Once you get more comfortable with it, try doing belly breathing for one minute. How do you feel after doing this?
This type of breathwork is very calming and regulating. You start with breathing in for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, then breathing out for a count of 8. Start with doing this two times with taking a break in the middle for a slow, deep breath. You can build up from there.
Mindful breathing is bringing attention to our breath without controlling it. We pay attention to how it feels to breathe in, then how it feels to breathe out. Are there any differences between the in and out breath? How does our breathing naturally change once we start to pay attention to it? Doing this for 1-2 minutes can quiet anxiety and help us feel more centered.
Why does breathing work help?
Slow, deep breathing helps to regulate our nervous system by showing that we are not in danger. Anxiety is part of our safety system (e.g. fight, flight, freeze). If we are breathing slowly and deeply, it helps to show our body and brain that we are not in danger and the physiological responses, like increased heart rate/respiration, can be reduced. When our emotions are in control (e.g. anxious, angry, overwhelmed), it is difficult to reason through what we need to do to get out of that state. Our prefrontal cortex is offline for the time being. Breathing helps regulate our nervous system to bring our prefrontal cortex (logical brain) back online so we can make choices about what to do next. Breathwork is a great way to regulate emotions and create a pause so that we can make better choices for ourselves.