MINDFULNESS BREATHING EXERCISES
Why we should practise Mindfulness breathing
As we go through our everyday lives, encountering situations which cause us stress, anger and anxiety, not only our health can suffer, but our judgment and attention skills. However, research has shown that practising mindfulness is an excellent tool for dealing with these difficult feelings. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of what we are feeling and thinking in the ‘present’, in a non-judgmental way. Much research has shown how mindfulness is linked to improved health, lower anxiety and stronger resilience against stress.
‘To meditate with mindful breathing is to bring body and mind back to the present moment so that you do not miss your appointment with life’
Studies have also shown that people who participated in a 15 minute mindfulness breathing exercise recorded less negative emotions when shown a series of negative images, compared to those who didn’t engage in the mindfulness breathing. This would suggest that focused breathing exercises can enhance our ability to modulate our emotions.
How and why Mindfulness breathing can help us
Mindfulness helps us to detach from our thoughts, feelings and emotions, which allows us to work through and understand those feelings, instead of allowing them to engulf us. Mindful breathing can offer us an ‘anchor’ – our breath – on which we can focus whenever we feel we are struggling with negative thoughts. Mindful breathing can also assist us in being ‘present’ in the moment, instead of worrying about the past or stressing about the future.
‘Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be’
To help us understand how mindful breathing can help us, we need to understand how we experience ‘stress’. When we are in a stressful situation the most ‘primitive’ part of our brain ( the amygdala) triggers what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This causes changes to our heart rate, muscle tone, blood pressure and concentration. We stay in this heightened state until our brain perceives the ‘danger’ is past. This primitive response is vitally important when we need to react quickly, such as the need to escape the path of an oncoming vehicle. However it is not advantageous in ongoing stressful circumstances causing anxiety, where there is no time for rest and recovery, such as the constant demands in our workplace or relationship problems. This is when ‘chronic stress’ does not allow for our brain to return our body to it’s resting state, affecting our mental and physical well-being – both in the short and long-term.
How we manage stress is crucially important to enhance our chance of a successful, healthy life. There are various approaches for managing stress and practising mindfulness boosts memory, concentration and performance, enhances emotional regulation and resilience, improves self-awareness and promotes relaxation for the body and mind.
Even if, as a short-term strategy, we focused on using mindfulness breathing during our most stressful moments during the day – at work for example – just taking our attention from what is occurring, and focused on taking a few breaths, we could significantly improve our ability to manage stress.
If we think of chronic stress affecting the brain, in a similar way to how simultaneously running too many programmes can have an impact on our computer’s performance, we can understand why we suffer – our brains are our computers and can become overloaded! Dealing with too much and loaded with emotion, it’s not surprising when our brain’s processing speed decreases. By pausing and taking a few mindful breaths, we are consciously focusing on a short single task to clear our mind. This helps the ‘thinking’ part of our brain (the tortoise), to catch up with the ’emotional’ part (the hare), allowing us to refocus, make better decisions and ‘re-boot’.
How to practise simple mindfulness breathing
Mindfulness can be practised very simply by focusing our attention on our own breathing – becoming aware of the exhale and inhale – simply known as mindful breathing. Once we begin to practise this regularly, we will develop the skill to more easily focus attention on our own breath in our daily lives. When we can achieve this, it can help us deal with all the difficult feelings we encounter, helping us to keep calm when tempers flare and heighten our skills of concentration.
Ideally we need to practise the mindful breathing for 5-10 minutes daily for at least a week and studies have shown that our mindfulness increases incrementally the more we practise. We can choose a regular time every day, but if we are feeling particularly stressed it can help if we can also take time to practise it in that moment if possible.
Mindful breathing can be practised whilst standing, but it is easier when we are sitting or lying comfortably. We can have our eyes open or closed, but again, it is usually easier to keep our focus if we close our eyes. It can help to begin by taking an exaggerated breath – particularly if we are trying to stay calm in a difficult situation – by taking a deep inhale through our nose (count to 3), hold our breath (count to 2) and a long exhale through our mouth (count to 4). Continue then by just being aware of every breath, without regulating it, focusing on the rise and fall of your chest and the sensation of the breath through your nostrils.
We will probably find, particularly in the beginning, that our mind will become sidetracked by various thoughts, but we should not be harsh with ourselves, just notice we are distracted and gently bring our attention back to our breath.
Five/ten minute mindful breathing exercise:
- Choose a relaxed and comfortable – sitting on a chair or on a cushion on the floor, or even lying on our back. Let our arms and hands relax comfortably.
- Close our eyes if we wish (if not, drop our gaze) and relax our body – bring our awareness to the ‘present’ by observing the sensations in our body. Mentally check our body from head to toe and consciously relax any tension. Notice how our body feels where we are, take a moment to notice any sounds in the distance and the temperature of the room.
- Become aware of our breath – notice the sensation of our breath going in and out. We do not need to modulate it – not long or short – just natural. As we breathe be aware of the rise and fall of our chest and abdomen. Pay attention to the sensations of breath, one at a time – when one ends, another begins. Follow the breath through it’s full duration. Notice that it happens naturally, with no conscious effort – some slow, some fast, some shallow, some deep.
- Be forgiving to our wandering mind – our mind is likely to start flitting from one thought to another. This is not a problem and in fact, is very natural. But whenever we notice that our mind has wandered away from our breath, note the thoughts and then gently bring our attention back to the feeling of our breath going in and out. We can silently say “thinking” or “wandering” and then re-direct our attention back to the ‘present’. This is likely to happen countless times during the exercise, but that’s ok and perfectly natural. We just need to keep noticing and gently bring ourselves back to focusing on our breath, without judgment for how ‘well’ or ‘badly’ we think we’re doing.
- Continue practising the mindful breathing for five to ten minutes – keep focusing on our breath, in silence. Occasionally, we will become lost in thought, but then return to our breath.
- Scan our body again before checking out – when time is up, once again take note of our whole body and the sensations we are feeling. Relax even more deeply and then give ourself some appreciation for enhancing our well-being!
‘Mindfulness isn’t difficult…we just need to remember to do it…’
Mindfulness of breathing simply uses our breath as an aide to concentration, By using our breath as our ‘anchor’ we can become aware of our mind’s constant wandering. The simple process of concentration brings us back to our ‘present’, to allow us to appreciate the wonder of the moment. It allows us to develop our mindfulness – the state of sensitive awareness – and is an excellent remedy to restlessness and anxiety, along with a great way to relax. Mindful breathing has an enormous influence on our whole physical and mental well-being.
Mindfulness of the ‘present’ feels more peaceful and clear, even when we are faced with difficult circumstances. Mindfulness is not a method of ‘tuning out’ the world; rather it’s about tuning in with open and compassionate awareness. Connecting with life through mindfulness not only improves our well-being, but also achieves more skilful living and mindful breathing is the first step on that journey.
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