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The Value of a Deep Breath

Do you ever find yourself taking a deep breath just before starting something big? Perhaps you take a deep breath and say, "Ok, let's do this" before tackling a daunting task. What about during the task? Do you take a deep breath then?


A lot of us don't. In fact, as we engage in a task that seems too hard to handle, we start breathing more shallowly. Shallow breathing is the brain's way of getting ready for a fight or flight in case of an emergency. That leads to anxiety. That leads to more shallow, quicker breathing. Which leads to more anxiety. See the spiral happening?


Consider exams for instance. I typically take a deep breath as I turn the pages over, and then all thought of breathing is gone as I get into the questions. Before I know it, I hit a question that's difficult or I completely don't know, my heart rate jumps, my blood pressure jumps, my breathing increases, and my brain screams, "Emergency! Emergency!"


Of course, there's no real emergency. It's just a question on an exam. But this is how we typically handle stress of any kind throughout the day. A little bit of worry triggers a little increased heart rate and breathing rate. The potential to spiral out of control is there.


Now imagine you are 12 years old. The stress you are facing isn't a college exam, it's a teacher asking you a question in front of the whole class. What's worse is that you don't know the answer but you know you should know the answer. You know everyone else knows it, but you don't. "Emergency! Emergency!", your brain screams. There's a chuckle from the class, the teacher moves on and you try to act like it was no big deal. Things are fine until first nutrition break when one of the kids that chuckled accidentally bumps your desk walking by. Your food falls to the floor and there's no 5 second rule in place. Your brain does a quick calculation of what's left of your food in your backpack and how long til next break and can you eat it in time before break ends or should you wait til next break and will you starve by then and... "Emergency! Emergency!" When you get home, you realize it's your turn to empty the dishwasher before supper and feed the cat. It's a little chore, but you're starving. No one is home so you grab a snack and check your Snap Chat. When Mom walks through the door an hour later and yells at you for not emptying the dishwasher you realize you forgot to do it after your snack. And now your phone is taken away for the rest of the night because it's the 17millionth time you forgot your chores. "Emergency! Emergency!" By now, your breathing is shallow, your heart rate is up, and your anxiety is peaked. And you're only 12 years old.


While it's not the answer to all your problems, taking a deep breath can be a great tool at managing anxiety. Breathe and count. Breathe in and count to 5. Breathe out slowly counting to 5. In-2-3-4-5, Out-2-3-4-5. Four or Five times. The key is to breathe before your brain hits the "Emergency!" button. Practicing during non-"emergency" times helps. Practicing deep breaths teaches your body to breathe. Sounds crazy. "I'm alive, aren't I? Of course my body knows how to breathe!" Well, ya, but no. Our bodies' pre-programmed instincts jump to emergency mode pretty quickly. Practicing deep breathing over-rides that programming to insert a deep breath when shallow breaths are starting to take over. In-2-3-4-5. Deep breathing becomes automatic. Out-2-3-4-5. Which brings down your heart rate, which brings down your blood pressure, which encourages more breathing at a normal pace. Which brings down the anxiety. Which normalizes your heart rate. See the good spiral?


Deep breathing exercises are critical to managing anxiety - for adults, youth and children alike. This is easy to teach your kids. They will probably balk at it at the beginning. But be persistent. Bribe them if you have to! Lol Teaching kids deep breathing exercises is, in my opinion, as important as any athletic activity you might enrol your children in. It's a strategy that will help them for life. 'Cuz who's life doesn't have a wee bit of stress in it? Breathe!

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