The Art of Breathing
Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C
Based on a question I had from my parent affirmation about breathing last week, and because I teach people the mechanics of breathing several times a week, I decided to take a moment to really break this breathing thing down for everyone. Breathing is the first step in getting connected to our bodies and what our body is telling us. Before you think that you already know how to breathe, take a moment to ask yourself whether there were any times in the last week where you noticed you had been hungry and meaning to eat for several hours but did not get around to it. Or, alternately, did you find yourself mindlessly eating away at your child’s leftovers as you were doing the dishes? Maybe you realized you needed to go to the bathroom and just did not give yourself the time to take a quick break. If you did any of those, that indicates is that you, like most everyone else, have learned the art of neglecting your body. You or your child may have especially mastered this art if either of you has a history of abuse or neglect. In order to survive ongoing childhood trauma, people tend to cope by overriding their body’s system for communicating in order to survive the abuse. Anyone with a history of neglect, never learned to listen to their body in the first place. After all, babies learn to continue voicing discomfort because when they do someone responds with caring and, typically, an explanation. It usually sounds like, “Awww, what’s the matter? Are you hungry? Is your diaper wet?” Even before we understand this, we get the message that what we feel matters and that listening to our bodies is important. The attachment disturbed children I see have unlearned this lesson to the point that most of them have an issue with bed or daytime wetting, or soiling. They have learned to take on the neglect that was dealt to them in early childhood. The first step to getting reconnected to your body is paying attention to your breath.
Even if you do not have a history of trauma or neglect, I would argue that the vast majority of us have seen the art of listening to our bodies become devalued over the course of our lives. We are encouraged to “push through” pain, to “get over” discomfort, and to wait or delay gratification. These values all have their place. I’m certain Olympic athletes, world leaders, and good parents are required to do all of these things to one degree or another. Still, taking time to check in with the body that supports your ability to selectively push through, delay gratification, etc. is only fair, and in that spirit, I would like to teach you the art of breathing, which you may have forgotten since infancy.
In a recent training I went to with Pat Ogden, a well-known expert in somatic (body) psychotherapy, she said that our bodies predict what our brains think is going to happen next. Think about that for a moment. What does a child standing like this think is going to happen next?
How about these children?
Our breath predicts what we think is going to happen next as well. In fact, it gives our body a message about preparing for the next step. To get connected to your breathing, take a moment, without trying to change anything, to pay attention to your breathing. Which part of your body moves when you breathe? Is it your chest? Your shoulders? Your tummy? Your ribs? Most of the traumatized children I see are breathing from their shoulders. Whether or not you were breathing from your shoulders, take a moment to try it. How does it feel? When I say breathing from your shoulders, I mean that when you take the breath in, your shoulders rise. Some might also say it is breathing into your chest. You feel your chest expand, and your shoulders rise. Try that for a moment and see what emotions come up.
Now try this. When you breathe in, think about breathing all the way to your belly. In fact, put one or both hands on your belly. When you breathe in, think of filling your belly with air, like a balloon. When you breathe out, think of letting the air out of the balloon. This may feel awkward and take a moment if you are not used to it. Breathe in, fill the balloon. Breathe out, let the air out of the balloon. You may also feel your ribs expand a bit when you breathe this way. How do you feel now?
Why does the way you breathe matter? Just as the way you hold your body predicts the future, so does the way you breathe. When people breathe from their shoulders, it sends a signal to your body much closer to a fight/flight or freeze reaction. Think of how you would take in a breath just before a car hits your car, or how you breathe when you just went for a strenuous run. You breathe to your chest or shoulders. Your body is working hard to protect you at those times. Now think of how you breathe just before you are going to drift off to sleep. Or, if you have one handy, watch a relaxed baby. You will notice the breaths are belly/ rib cage breaths as opposed to shoulder/chest breaths. This signals to your body that you are calm, and that there is nothing to fear.
The first step to training your body into understanding that it is not under siege is paying attention to your breath. I teach my clients to do it. I encourage you to do it. I encourage you to teach your children to do it if you see they are struggling. I find simply noticing that a child needs to try a new way of breathing can help to ease anxiety. I introduce it by saying something like, “Can we try something?”or “I’m curious about something. Can we do an experiment?” Then I ask them to play around with their breathing, the same way I asked you to. It often changes the feelings in the room from tense to more relaxed. If the mood goes back to tense, I simply notice it out loud, “Wow, look, as soon as we started talking about that your breathing went back to the old way. What happened?” It gives me the opportunity to help a child or adult explore the feelings that go with the breathing and to teach a way to disconnect from the old intensity of the emotion that goes along with whatever they are remembering or anticipating.
Have you tried this exercise? How has it worked for you?
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