A therapist’s take on how harnessing the power of breath can change your life.
People start seeing me for therapy for a variety of reasons, but their reasons typically boil down to one thing… an overload of stress. This comes as no surprise, seeing that stress was the most googled symptom in a fifth of all states in 2018.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be stressed, but many of us are so used to being constantly stressed that we don’t even notice we’re stressed anymore. We are so used to working our way through an endless list of expectations, mindlessly moving from one activity to the next, and not really paying attention to the toll our stress takes on our body and mind.
Simply put, stress is a natural byproduct of disconnection from ourselves. It’s a combination of all of the emotions we suppress and the needs we ignore as we push through our day. Stress is our body asking to be cared for.
No matter what causes someone’s stress, there is one tool that I recommend to everyone I work with, and it is as old as life itself—our breath.
You don’t need to look farther than your smartphone to see how breath has worked its way into the modern health landscape, with apps on breathing available for download, and some even built into our devices. But why is something as simple and automatic as breath making such headway in the world of health and wellness? And why is it my go-to tool for the people I work with in therapy?
First of all, as unrealistic as it sounds, most adults have forgotten how to breathe. Think about how a baby’s body moves when it breathes. Its whole abdomen rises and expands with each inhale, and slowly falls with each exhale. It’s a rhythmic pattern of slow, deep breaths. Now take a few moments to pay attention to your own breath. Chances are it’s much more shallow and rapid than the baby’s breath I just described. And unfortunately, shallow and rapid breathing—the way most adults breathe—can actually increase our stress.
It’s quite ironic that during childhood, when we’re busy learning how to become functioning humans, we forget how to use one of our most basic human functions. It makes sense that this happens though when you consider that our society teaches us to hold everything in. Not only are we socialized to hold ourselves in physically (Who here hasn’t ever sucked in their gut for a picture?), but messages we receive as kids like, “Don’t cry,” and “You’re okay,” condition us to hold everything in emotionally, as well. And what’s the first thing that happens when we try to prevent ourselves from crying? We hold our breath.
The Power of Breath
Time and time again, research shows the numerous health and stress reduction benefits we get from taking long, deep breaths. Let’s look at these benefits in real human terms to see exactly why it’s so important to retrain ourselves how to breathe, and how focusing on the quality of your breath can change your life::
1. Breath teaches you to let go
An exhale is literally the physical manifestation of letting go. It is well-documented that our bodies store our emotional pain (think shoulder tension, headaches, and lower back pain). Some of us have been holding on to our hurt for years or even decades. Taking long exhales is an easy way to start learning how to relax and let go. And when we let go, not only do we release stress and pain, but we open up space to receive and grow.
2. Breath allows you to just be
When we’re constantly on the go, it can be easy to forget that we’re not human doings, we’re human beings. Our ability to breathe is the essence of being, considering that breath is the most basic human function that is under our control. When we focus on our breath, we are momentarily relieving ourselves of pressures from the outside world. This allows us to pause, reset, and live in the present without any expectations. Regular practice of simply being in the present moment gives our body time to restore its calm, which, over time, can help us get through our day with even more vitality and drive.
3. Breath connects you to yourself
Focusing on your breath grounds you in your body. When you turn your attention inward, it reconnects you with your feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, and aspirations. Most importantly, your breath connects you to the part of yourself that is unchanging. The way we breathe changes, but our breath is always there. Similarly, our thoughts and emotions are always changing, but who we are underneath that is always there. We feel pain, but we are not our pain. That means there is an unchanging piece in all of us that has never been hurt and is always okay—no matter what is going on in our lives. Breath can help you access that.
Getting in touch with your breath is paramount to stress reduction and healing. Breath keeps you present, keeps you calm, and reconnects you to your body, your emotions, your experiences, and the part of you that is unchanging throughout it all. The full benefits of breathwork don’t happen overnight, but a long term investment in your breath is worth the time and effort. After all, your life literally depends on it.
Amalia Briggs, LMSW, RYT is a mental health clinician, yoga teacher, and meditation teacher with expertise in breath and mindfulness. She is the founder of Great Lakes Mindfulness, which delivers mindfulness-based interventions through mental health therapy, mindfulness coaching, and professional staff development. Through her company, she develops and leads trainings for healthcare professionals on mindfulness and stress management, and contracts with nonprofits, schools, and government agencies to teach breathwork, yoga, and other mindfulness exercises to a variety of populations. Amalia also manages the clinical content delivery for online self help programs offered through companies including The Great Courses and Yoga International. After receiving her clinical training from the University of Michigan, Amalia spent years working at a nonprofit organization as a clinician and clinical supervisor. Amalia has since received extensive training on breath and mindfulness-based interventions both nationally and internationally, and is now excited to educate on the power of effective breathwork as a Thought Leader for Respa Better Yoga.