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Change How You Feel by Changing How You Breathe

How much thought or attention do you give to the way you breathe? Breathing—respiration—is a physical process that we don’t usually have to think about. It’s performed by the part of our nervous system that works unconsciously no help from us. In the same way that we don’t think about beating our hearts, or about digesting our food in our stomachs, we don’t think about each and every breath we take.


All these things happen by themselves, whether we are awake or asleep. What is different about breathing is that, even though our bodies are in charge of actually moving the air in and out of our lungs, we can become aware that we are able to use our minds to decide how the air moves.

How the air moves is important. The way we breathe is a sign of our mood, and our mood is a sign of how we are breathing. When we can see how one affects the other, we begin to see that it is possible to help ourselves get out from under the effects of stress.


The way we breathe when we are upset, angry, or frightened is different from the way we breathe in a moment of pleasure or relaxation. For each psychological or emotional state there is a corresponding breathing pattern. The same is true for every chemical or physical state—each has a respective breathing pattern.


The easiest way to see how this works is to imagine yourself being chased by a gigantic monster that has its eye on you for dinner. In what’s known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, your breath becomes short, shallow, and fast to get as much energy and oxygen into your running muscles as possible. You want distance between you and that monster!


When the coast is clear, the monster has retreated, and your body is ready to slow down, the ‘rest and digest’ response in your nervous system will help you relax. Your breathing becomes deeper and longer, and your body returns to a more tranquil state. It’s this non-stressed state that your body needs for resilience, healthy digestion, and a strong immune system.


It’s good to know that when we change how we breathe, intentionally or not, we are able to change how we feel. I tried a simple experiment to test this idea by experimenting with different breath patterns and rhythms in different situations. Over time, I discovered that my favorite breathing pattern is long, deep breathing right into the belly.


In general, long, deep breathing is a relaxing and calming breath. You can make it more relaxing by inhaling and exhaling through the nose. And to relax or calm down even more, you can make the exhale longer than the inhale.


I decided to try a simple experiment to test this idea out. I’d watch part of a horror movie—and I’m not even close to being a fan of horror movies, they scare the daylights out of me. The movie begins; so far so good. The tension builds, the monster appears out of nowhere, and my heart is beating right out of my chest. My breathing is all in my upper chest and I’m panting in and out of my mouth.


Decision time. Is this the way I want to feel? No. What are my options? I can inhale through my nose all the way down to my belly. I give it a try for three or four breaths and I’m feeling better. I continue the experiment by timing the breathing pattern with a simple count of one, two, three, and four. When it’s time to exhale, I breathe out again through my nose and count to eight. With the new pattern, four counts in and eight counts out, I continue for just a couple of minutes. And now I begin to see the movie for what it is—make-believe and nothing to stress about. I’m once again calm.


Since that experiment I’ve practiced this idea in everyday situations that can cause the ‘stress monster’ to raise its ugly head. Sometimes I forget that I have this tool. It takes some paying attention, some mindfulness of the moment, and awareness of what your body is telling you by the way the breath is moving in and out. I have to remember to check in with myself and decide: is this the way I want to feel, or do I want to spend a few minutes breathing in a different way to change my state of mind.


With attention and practice, changing how you feel can be as basic as changing your breathing pattern.


There are many patterns and rhythms for both relaxing and energizing which are simple and effective. And just like performing in Carnegie Hall, all it takes is practice.

Luann Gilligan Gay offers no-cost Taster Workshops to share breathwork techniques and practices. If you would like to join a six-week course or work privately with Luann, please be in touch with Saratoga Family Health NPs, Palliative Care Center for more information.


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