5 Ways to Make Breathing Fun
How are you breathing? Take a moment right now to pause and notice your breath patterns. Are they shallow and fast? Are you holding your breath? Breathing from your diaphragm? Or are your breaths slow and steady?
While breathing is an automatic process, the way in which we breathe is crucial for helping with anxiety reduction. Many times I hear people say breathing doesn’t help, it is too basic, or it may increase one’s anxiety. There may be truth in each of these depending on your situation. However, it does not mean just throw it out the window. Learning to utilize the power of breath work is key to reducing anxiety.
Let’s look at each of the obstacles and then I will give you five ways to make breathing fun and creative.
Breathing is too basic. Yes, breathing is something we all do every day. It is automatic and does not require effort or thought to remember to breathe on a basic level. However, proper breathing to increase a state of calm and relaxation in our body is different. Breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system which regulates several bodily processes. The autonomic nervous system directly responds to stress, real or perceived threat, and shifts the bodily processes, including breathing, based on the information coming into the nervous system. When in a state of anxiety or high stress, our breathing becomes shallow, rapid, someone may hyperventilate, or even hold their breath. One way to communicate to our body that we are safe, that it does not need to be on high alert (if there is no danger in the present) is to adjust our breathing. It requires intentional effort to shift the patterns that are stuck in a threat response.
Breathing does not help. When I hear this, my first question is how long have you practiced a new way of breathing and what occurred that led you to believe it didn’t work? It takes time and practice to learn how to breathe effectively. There are several methods and ways of doing this. Sometimes we need to try several in order to experience one that connects to us and that we can utilize. Just like in a toolbox someone may have several screwdrivers. They are used for different purposes and the person using the tool can determine which is best for the specific situation. Breath work can be similar. If we have several options to choose from, in our mental toolbox, we can utilize the one most appropriate for the situation we are in. Research shows that the pattern of our breathing impacts the way we feel (Philippot, Chapelle, & Blairy, 2002). Studies also show that breathing appropriately stimulates the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that brings the body back to a state of relaxation, calm, and rest after an emergency has passed. Breathing has the power to shift the nervous system’s state of activation.
Breathing increases my anxiety. This can happen for some people. I have seen this in my practice specifically, when there is a history of trauma, or someone’s nervous system has remained in a state of high activation, or threat, for a sustained amount of time. In these cases, a reduction in the activity of the nervous system can be perceived as dangerous which then increases the threat response. This is when we need to utilize creativity and fun in order to begin to shift breathing patterns in a way that feels tolerable to the nervous system. I have included five options for you to try.
- Blow Bubbles: Whether you make your own or go to the dollar store and purchase some bubbles, give it a try. If you are thinking it may sound childlike, that is ok, do it anyway! When you take out the wand, inhale, and then when you exhale, watch the bubbles form and slowly drift away in the breeze. Notice how many bubbles you can blow in one breath, notice the sun reflecting in the bubbles, notice the easy manner in which they float. By focusing on the bubbles, it shifts the sole focus from the breathing pattern and can help in the process of learning to breathe effectively. If you are like me, I have a dog that likes to jump and eat the bubbles so be aware. 🙂
- Volcano Mountain: This is a great option to do with children, yet can also be fun for adults too. Gather a large bowl or bin, dish soap, and a straw. Fill the bowl with water and then add just a few drops of dish soap. Take a deep breath in, and then blow out through the straw in the bowl of water. Bubbles will start to form. Continue to breathe in this way and see how big of a mountain of bubbles you can make. You may want to keep the bowl on a towel, in a sink, or a bathtub as the mountain may turn into a volcano and spill over.
- Pets: Animals are a great resource in the therapy process for many reasons. We can utilize them as we practice breathing. Place your hand on your animal’s sides and notice the rise and fall of their breath. Match your pattern to theirs (as long as they are calm). Animals will alert you if there is true danger in the present moment, or something you need to be fearful of. If the animal is relaxed and calm, it is okay to remind your nervous system that there is no danger in the present and you can take some deep calming breaths.
- Bilateral drawing with breath: Take either a large piece of paper, or two regular size sheets of paper, place a writing instrument (crayons, pencils, markers, pens, oil pastels, chalk, etc.) in each hand and begin to draw with both hands simultaneously. Sometimes people like to listen to music while doing this. There is no right or wrong. Just do what works for you. Go ahead and just make shapes, pictures, scribbles on the paper while you breathe.
- Stretch and Breathe: This is a great way to combine body work and breath work at the same time. As you breathe in, gently stretch your neck to one side, as you breathe out, making your exhale longer than your inhale, stretch to the other side. Breathe in and reach to the sky, breathe out and touch the floor. Try this with various muscle groups (as long as you take care of your medical needs or sensitivities first)
Pierre Philippot, Gaëtane Chapelle & Sylvie Blairy (2002) Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion,Cognition and Emotion, 16:5, 605-627, DOI: 10.1080/02699930143000392