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New research on the science behind mindful breathing

When working with people who have traumatic stress reactions, mental health professionals have always emphasised the importance of practicing slow, controlled, mindful breathing as a way to induce calm and suppress emotional disturbance and panic attacks.

A recent study by Yackle et al, published in Science Magazine, looked at the neuroscience behind the calming effect of this type of breathing. They found brain connections between breathing and state of mind http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1411

If this solid science inspires you to give mindful breathing a go then here is a short activity to get you started.

Begin by sitting comfortably with your spine upright, feet squarely on the floor and hands on your lap.

  • Place one hand on your chest and place the other hand on your abdomen just below your navel.
  • Notice which hand rises and falls the most – if it’s the hand on your chest then your breathing is more shallow and less relaxed than we are aiming for. That’s fine, don’t worry about it, just notice it and we’ll see if it changes as we practice this method
  • Now shift your attention to the hand on your abdomen and try to imagine you are inflating a balloon under that hand. So every time you breathe in, the balloon inflates and your hand is pushed out; and every time you breathe out, the balloon deflates and your abdomen is pulled back in
  • Breathe in and the balloon inflates
  • Breathe out and it deflates

Sometimes it helps to actually push your abdomen out with the inhale and pull it back in with the exhale. The aim is for the lower hand to be gently moving in and out whilst the hand on your chest barely moves. Once you have got the hang of this, you can do it anywhere without placing your hands on your body. Practice it regularly and you’ll get better at it.

Take a couple more breaths like this then let your breathing just return to natural rhythm.

Begin to check in with your body, mentally scanning from the top of your head downwards noticing any areas of tension or relaxation. Don’t judge or try to change anything – simply notice the sensations and move on. It can help to close your eyes when you do this.

Now check in with your physical senses – what can you hear? Are there any smells, tastes that you are aware of? Notice the physical sensation of where your body connects with the chair and the ground, the feel of your clothes.

Check in with any emotions you may have. It doesn’t matter whether they feel negative (frustration, impatience, sadness, agitation) or positive (calm, happiness, optimism). Your job is not to analyse or judge, simply to become aware.

Now just bring your attention back to your breathing for a little while without trying to change it (some people find it helpful to count their in and out breaths, others to notice the sensation).

If your mind wanders, as soon as you notice it, just bring your attention back to your breathing.

When you’re ready to end your mindful practice, let the attention move away from the breath and back into your immediate surroundings, becoming aware of your body and the sounds around you. If you had closed your eyes, open them eyes slowly. Notice what you see in your surroundings – the lighting, colour, shapes and all the visual details of what’s around you. Sit for a moment longer before throwing yourself into the next activity. Notice how you feel physically and mentally, without judging or setting expectations about how you should feel.

Aim to build this exercise into your daily routine. It generally works best first thing in the morning and start with short sessions – maybe 5 or 10 minutes. As you practice, you will find it easier to maintain awareness on the current moment in time.