Destress with Sian’s Breath Work
The idea of consciously controlling the breath to increase physical, mental and emotional wellbeing has been around for thousands of years – but has never felt more relevant
BY SIAN BERNARD
Today there is a raft of therapists and doctors promoting breathing techniques not only for relaxation, but as tools for managing anxiety and anxiety-based disorders, including OCD, panic disorder, insomnia and PTSD.
What is breath work?
The rate at which we breathe has an effect on the rate at which our heart beats, which is an indication that a number of other processes have also kicked in to keep us in balance. These systems include immune response, healing, digestion and absorption. Breath work is about using your breathing in a conscious manner to keep your body in balance. In time, this can become second nature and you will naturally begin to breathe at the optimum rate for your body to be in the best state of wellbeing.
The Science Part
The majority of our bodily functions are controlled by two responses: fight or flight (when reacting to a threat) and rest and digest, which helps us to remain relaxed and calm. When we detect danger or feel threatened there is an immediate call to action from the brain to the body to ‘get ready’. The chemicals noradrenalin, adrenalin and cortisol are released to affect changes in the body. The body also needs energy to fight or run, which comes from using oxygen in the air we breathe. Once the danger has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to return our breathing and heart rate to normal.
But what happens if the parasympathetic nervous system fails?
Stress, anxiety disorders and worry can occur when our parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t return to normal. In more serious situations like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t turn off and a condition of hyperarousal occurs. This is where the brain and body are in a continuous loop of telling each other that they are still in danger.
Breath work can help.
While other therapies are used to manage the cognitive and behavioural roots of anxiety disorders – or to stop telling the body it’s in danger – breath work can work in tandem to manage symptoms and the effect they can have.
Try them yourself.
Here are some simple techniques that can be combined to help you relax and remain calm – in turn, improving the function of your parasympathetic nervous system.
BELLY BREATHING (diaphramatic breathing)
How to do it:
- Find a quiet room where you will be undisturbed for about 10–15 minutes.
- Lie down on the bed or floor with a pillow under your knees. Undo tight clothing and remove shoes. Spend a few moments settling yourself down.
- Close your eyes and check that your head, neck and spine are in a straight line.
- Focus your attention on your breathing and don’t try to change it for the moment. Become aware of how fast or slow you are breathing and whether you’re breathing with your chest or diaphragm. Notice whether there are any gaps or pauses between your inhalation and exhalation.
- Now, put one hand on your upper chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your rib cage. Relax the shoulders and hands. As you breathe in, allow the abdomen to rise. As you breathe out, allow the abdomen to flatten. There should be little or no movement in the chest.
- Allow yourself a little time to get into a regular rhythm. It may help to imagine that as you are breathing in, you draw half a circle with your breath around your body, and as you breathe out, you complete the other half of the circle. Allow your breath to become smooth, easy and regular.
- Slow down your breathing out, then become conscious of a comfortable pause before allowing your breaths in to follow smoothly and easily. If any distractions, thoughts or worries come into your mind, allow them to come, then allow them to go and bring your attention back to your breathing.
- When you’re ready to end this exercise, take a few deeper breaths in. Bring some feeling back into your fingers and toes. Open your eyes slowly, and turn over onto one side before gently sitting up.
Singing, chanting and humming all aid relaxation. Breathing through the nose, rather than the mouth, causes a little more resistance, but here are some more specific techniques.
How to do… Pursed Lip Breathing**:
- Sit with your back straight, or lie down. Relax your shoulders as much as possible.
- Inhale through your nose for 2 seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen. Try to fill your abdomen with air, instead of filling just your lungs.
- Purse your lips like you’re blowing on hot food and then breathe out slowly, taking twice as long to exhale as you took to breathe in.
- Repeat. Over time, you can increase the inhale and exhale counts from 2 seconds to 4 seconds, until you’re in rhythm with resonant breathing.
How to do… Seashell Breathing (Ujjyai):
Ujjay in Sanskrit means ‘victorious over mind through breath’. This is also called seashell breathing to help describe the sound you hear – like the sound from inside a shell.
- Sit in a comfortable seat and so there is even weight on both sides. Knees no higher than hips. Head and neck straight, spine feels lifted and tall. Chin is parallel to the earth.
- Rest one hand on your thigh, palm facing up or down. The other hand should be in front of your mouth and at the same height, with the palm facing towards you.
- With your mouth open, exhale into your palm, imagining you are steaming up a mirror, and feel the warm breath on your palm. On your next inhale, keep the hand where it is and breathe in making that same sound. Practise this for up to 10 minutes (4 counts in, 4 counts out, 10 times – just like resonance breathing). Notice if you find the inhale or exhale more difficult.
- When you feel comfortable, move on to closing your mouth on the inhale but opening your mouth on the exhale. See if you can maintain the sound even when the lips are sealed.
- Next, inhale with mouth open and exhale with mouth closed, keeping the sensation in your throat and the sound of your breath the same. Do each for 5-10 cycles.
- When you feel you want to move on from here, relax your hand and begin Ujjayi Pranayama. You might time yourself with a stopwatch for 2 minutes or choose how many cycles of breath you want to aim for (feel free to use a metronome here).
- Again, notice where any resistance lies in the breath. Maybe you find the audibility awkward, equalising the volume of breath on both inhale and exhale difficult, or you notice a discrepancy of ease between in-breath and out-breath. Notice where you need to focus and what you need to practise. I recommend that you shorten the longer breath to meet the shorter breath if you’re unable to stretch the breath evenly on both sides. You don’t want to feel out of breath or gasping at any point. There is absolutely no retention – it’s like the sea: a continuous sequence of waves, no holding. Totally fluid and seamless.
**It is worth mentioning that pursed lip breathing improves the lung mechanics and breathing all at once, meaning you don’t have to work as hard to breathe well. This is particularly helpful for people who have lung conditions that make it more difficult for them to breathe, including obstructive lung diseases like asthma, and restrictive lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis. Pursed lip breathing is also used as part of the treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Breathing exercises to improve lung function are essential, as they can make breathing significantly easier.
Sian is a cognitive behaviour therapist and also a clinical hypnotherapist, having trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the College of Clinical Hypnosis. Four years ago Sian relocated her Harley Street practice to her native North East after 26 years in central London. Sian now runs her private clinic in Gosforth and also owns a training academy to help organisations with stress reduction. Sian’s approach is to help people become their own therapists, whether they come to see her for panic attacks, depression or OCD (she covers a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues).