Dec 3, 2020
Mental Health

Taking a Breather

Jennifer Dobberfuhl Quinlan, PhD, Program Director & Co-founder
What You'll Learn
4-7-8 TechniqueSquare BreathingAlternate Nostril BreathingBalloon BellyPursed Lip Breathing

An overview of breathing techniques that can ease anxiety. Before anxiety escalates into a panic attack, breathing exercises can be an effective way to calm oneself. Here is an overview of a few popular breathing techniques.

4-7-8 Technique

Background: This breathing pattern was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and is said to be based on the yogic technique called pranayama.This technique helps you gain control of your breathing; for some people, it helps them fall asleep more quickly. While it doesn’t make everyone fall asleep, practice this breathing in a situation where you don’t need to be fully alert immediately afterwards.

How to do it: Exhale fully and make a ‘whooshing’ sound. With mouth closed, inhale through the nose for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8 seconds, again making a ‘whooshing’ sound. This is considered one “breath.” Repeat this series of steps until you’ve completed 4 whole “breaths.” As you get more experienced, go up to 8 whole “breaths.”

Square Breathing

Background: Also referred to as box breathing, 4×4 breathing, and 4-part breath, this technique is often considered a “go-to” for stress reduction and was made very popular by Brené Brown in a TedTalk she gave on vulnerability. As explained by Dr. Nikki Rollo, PhD, square breathing is effective for stress reduction, preparation for meditation, relaxation prior to going to sleep, and to clear your mind/reset your creative juices. 

How to do it: If possible, sit in a chair with your back supported and both feet on the floor. You may set an intention or simply begin breathing. Inhale through your mouth slowly, counting to four. Hold the top of your breath for 4 counts. Exhale slowly through your mouth, counting to four.  Rest/hold 4 counts at the bottom of your breath. Repeat this series. 

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Background: This technique is also a yogic breath control practice. In Sanskrit, it’s called nadi shodhana pranayama, or “subtle energy clearing breathing technique.” This breathing practice is often part of a yoga or mediation practice but can also be done on your own to relax your body, ease anxiety, quiet your mind, and become more focused/aware. 

How you do it: In this breathing  practice, try to keep your breath slow, smooth, and continuous. You should be able to breathe easily throughout the practice, but if you become dizzy, lightheaded or experience shortness of breath, stop the practice. This is the process as explained by Emily Cronkleton, a certified yoga teacher, and reviewed by Dr. Timothy J. Legg:  

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.
  • Place your left hand on your left knee.
  • Lift your right hand up toward your nose.
  • Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  • Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
  • (Some people fold the middle and index fingers down; others touch them to their  forehead - both are illustrated below.)
  • Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
  • Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
  • Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
  • This is one cycle.
  • Continue for up to 5 minutes.
  • Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.

Balloon Belly

Background: Also sometimes simply called deep breathing, this is a general breathing technique which is very simple but can be quite effective. It can be practiced sitting, lying down, or standing up.

How to do it: Relax your belly. Place one hand on your belly, just below your ribs. Inhale through the nose slowly and deeply, noticing the rising action of the hand. Exhale slowly through the mouth, pursing your lips. Notice the falling action of the hand. Repeat 3-10 times. 

Pursed Lip Breathing

Background: This technique focuses on making your breaths more intentional and slower. Pursed lip breathing can help make your breaths more effective and give you more control over your breathing. This practice particularly improves your lung mechanics and natural breathing patterns.

How to do it: Sit up straight or lie down. With shoulders relaxed, inhale through the nose for two counts. Try to fill your abdomen and not just your lungs; pay attention to the air moving into your abdomen. Purse your lips like you’re blowing through a straw and breathe out slowly, taking twice as long to exhale as you took inhaling. Repeat the process, increasing your counts from 2 to 4 (or more) seconds. 

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Jennifer Dobberfuhl-Quinlan

Jennifer has a master's degree in international education and French and a PhD in instructional psychology and technology and second language acquisition. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor, educator, administrator, trainer, and online education specialist. She is also involved with natural health and healing, yoga/meditation practice, and holistic restorative practices.

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