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Calming Power in Deep Breathing

6 Strategies that Work for Families

What if I told you there was one thing you could teach your kids to help reduce stress, relieve anxiety, improve focus, and tame tempers? That’s right. There is one thing that achieves all of that – and it requires no prescription, no specialist, and no money. And the cherry on top? You can do it anywhere at any time! This might sound too good to be true, but deep breathing really is that powerful.

Breathing might sound simple enough, but there are actually tricks to deep breathing that are important to learn and practice. We are born knowing how to breathe optimally. If you ever watch a baby sleeping, you’ll notice the baby’s belly rising and falling as he breathes in and out. This type of breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. It’s the best type of breathing for calming our minds and bodies. As we get older, we tend to breathe more from our upper bodies, especially when we are stressed or upset. This is called thoracic, or chest breathing, and it’s a more shallow type of breathing than belly breathing. If you ask most people to take a deep breath in, their chest moves up and down. Chest breathing doesn’t help us relax the way belly breathing does, but we tend to do it – especially when someone asks us to take a deep breath.

In fact, we do all kinds of breathing that isn’t helpful when we are anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed. Have you ever noticed how you hold your breath during a scary movie, breathe heavily when sobbing, or hyperventilate when panicked? These are automatic changes in our breathing that happen when our fight-or-flight response kicks in. This system was designed to help us run from danger or fight back by getting oxygen to all the muscles in our body (think early human encountering a saber-toothed tiger kind of danger). This type of breathing isn’t so helpful when our stressor is not truly dangerous (a class presentation versus a burning building for example). Taking deep breaths is a quick way to turn off fight-or-flight mode and press a theoretical reset button. It actually sends a message to our parasympathetic nervous system telling our bodies to calm down. 

Granted, this can be easier said than done. If you’ve tried to calm your child through an endless stream of tears, snot, and gasps, then you know it is not always as simple as saying, “Take a deep breath.” Here are some strategies that can help people of all ages – from screaming toddlers to stressed out teenagers to anxious adults – learn how to use deep breathing. 

1. Flower/Candle Breathing  Imagine you have a flower in your hand. Breathe in deeply like you are smelling the flower. Then breathe out slowly like you are blowing out birthday candles.  For kids, you can modify this imagery to personalize it for the child. Some children like to imagine breathing in the smell of freshly baked cookies or blowing away dandelion tufts. Asking children to get involved with the imagery is a perfect way to engage their imaginations. Plus, using this imagery helps children focus on something other than thoughts and worries. To practice with a younger child, you can use a pinwheel or bubbles to demonstrate.

2. Balloon Belly Breathing  Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Imagine you have a balloon inside your belly and when you breathe in, your belly expands as the balloon fills up with air. When you breathe out, your belly should go down like the balloon is deflating. Work on making the hand on your belly move more than the hand on your chest. To practice with a child, place a stuffed animal on her belly when she is lying down. See if she can make it move up when she inhales and down when she exhales.

3. Darth Vader Breathing After you inhale through your nose, try opening your mouth wide and breathing out while making a “hahhhh” sound like Darth Vader. You can also put your palm in front of your mouth and pretend like you are fogging up glass. See if you can feel the warm breath on your hand. Your child might like to practice fogging up a window or a mirror.

4. Counting Breaths There are many ways that counting can help you focus on your breathing. You can breathe in on one, breathe out on two, breathe in on three, breathe out on four, and so on. You might count to four as you inhale and four as you exhale. Like this: breathe in… two – three – four; breathe out… two – three – four. This is called equal breathing which helps even your breaths. You might also try closing your hands into a fist, inhaling, and releasing one finger at a time on every exhale until all ten fingers are released. 

5. Calming Mantra A mantra is a word or sound that is repeated to help concentration. You can try coming up with a deep breathing mantra to say as you inhale and exhale. For example, “Breathe in calm, breathe out stress.” 

6. Apps and Websites There are great apps that help you learn and remember to practice deep breathing. Here are a few I like: Calm; Headspace; Breathe2Relax; MindYeti; Stop, Breathe, Think; and Stop Breathe, Think for Kids. Also, Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame is a good choice for younger children.

Remember, there is no substitute for parents modeling this behavior for their children. When you take deep breaths to calm yourself, your children will learn to do the same.

Finally, deep breathing takes practice just like any other skill. The key is to practice when you are not stressed. It’s like playing a sport – if you don’t practice before the big game, you probably won’t perform very well. It’s helpful to dedicate a little bit of time each day to practice deep breathing. This not only helps you master the skills, but also helps you reap the daily benefits for your mind and body. Just five minutes a day can make a difference. Consider making it part of a routine with your children at bedtime or in the morning before school. Soon, you and your kids will be pros at deep breathing. 

Nadia Islam, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist providing integrated behavioral health services at the Pediatric Center. Dr. Islam specializes in psychotherapy with children, teenagers, young adults, and their families to address common concerns such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and behavioral problems. Additionally, she offers psychological testing, including evaluations for ADHD and learning difficulties.
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