Self-Help Information: Relaxation Breathing
Your breathing directly reflects the level of tension you carry in your
body. Under tension, your breathing usually becomes shallow and rapid, and
occurs high in the chest. When relaxed, you breathe more fully, more deeply,
and from your abdomen. It’s difficult to be tense and to breathe from your
abdomen at the same time.
The two exercises described below can help you change your breathing
pattern. By practicing them, you can achieve a state of deep relaxation in a
short period of time. Just three minutes of practicing abdominal breathing
or the calming breath exercise will usually induce a deep state of
Abdominal Breathing Exercise
Note the level of tension you’re feeling. Then place one hand on your
abdomen right beneath your rib cage.
Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into the "bottom" of your lungs –
in other words, send the air as low down as you can. If you’re breathing
from your abdomen, your hand should actually rise. Your chest should move
only slightly while your abdomen expands. (In abdominal breathing, the
diaphragm – the muscle that separates the lung cavity form the abdominal
cavity – moves downward. In so doing, it causes the muscles surrounding the
abdominal cavity to push outward.)
When you’ve taken in a full breath, pause for a moment and then exhale
slowly through your nose or mouth, depending on your preference. Be sure to
exhale fully. As you exhale, allow your whole body to just let go (you might
visualize your arms and legs going loose and limp like a rag doll).
Do ten slow, full abdominal breaths. Try to keep your breathing smooth and
regular, without gulping in a big breath or letting your breath out all at
once. It will help to slow down your breathing if you slowly count to four
on the inhale (1-2-3-4) and then slowly count to four on the exhale.
Remember to pause briefly at the end of each inhalation. Count from ten down
to one, counting backwards one number with each exhalation. The process
should go like this:
- Slow inhale… pause…slow exhale (count "ten")
- Slow inhale…pause…slow exhale (count "nine), etc.
If you start to feel light headed while practicing abdominal breathing,
stop for 15-20 seconds, and then start again.
Extend the exercise if you wish by doing two or three "sets" of abdominal
breaths, remembering to count backwards from ten to one for each set (each
exhalation counts as one number). Five full minutes of abdominal breathing
will have a pronounced effect in reducing anxiety or early symptoms of
panic. Some people prefer to count from one to ten instead. Feel free to do
this if it suits you.
Calming Breath Exercise
The calming breath exercise was adapted from the ancient discipline of yoga.
It is a very efficient technique for achieving a deep state of relaxation
Breathing from your abdomen, inhale through your nose slowly to a count of
five (count slowly "one…two…three…four…five" as you inhale).
Pause and hold your breath to a count of five.
Exhale slowly, through your nose or mouth, to a count of five (or more if it
takes you longer). Be sure to exhale fully.
When you’ve exhaled completely, take two breaths in your normal rhythm, and
then repeat steps 1 through 3 in the cycle above.
Keep up the exercise for at least three to five minutes. This should involve
going through at least ten cycles of in-five, hold-five, and out-five. As
you continue the exercise, you may notice that you can count higher when you
exhale than when you inhale. Allow these variations in your counting to
occur if they do, and just continue with the exercise for up to five
minutes. Remember to take two normal breaths between each cycle. If you
start to feel light-headed while practicing this exercise, stop for thirty
seconds and then start again.
Throughout the exercise, keep your breathing smooth and regular, without
gulping in breaths or breathing out suddenly.
Optional: Each time you exhale, you may wish to say "relax," "calm," let
go," or any other relaxing word or phrase silently to yourself. Allow your
whole body to let go as you do this. If you keep this up each time you
practice, eventually just saying your relaxing word by itself will bring on
a mild state of relaxation.
Practice the abdominal breathing or calming breath exercise for five minutes
every day for at least two weeks. If possible, find a regular time each day
to do this so that your breathing exercise becomes a habit. With practice,
you can learn in a short period of time to "damp down" the physiological
reactions underlying anxiety and panic.
Once you feel you’ve gained some mastery in the use of either technique,
apply it when you feel stressed, anxious, or when you experience the onset
of panic symptoms. By extending your practice of either breathing exercise
to a month or longer, you will begin to retrain yourself to breathe from
your abdomen. The more you can shift the center of your breathing from your
chest to your abdomen, the more consistently you will feel relaxed on an
(Adapted from: The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, Oakland,
Need Additional Help?
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling for these
and related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary Students ONLY).
For more information or to schedule an appointment call or e-mail:
Donna J. Scott, PhD
The information contained in these self help
documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional care. Neither
the authors, Washington State University nor the College of Veterinary
Medicine assume liability for injury incurred by following the information
presented in these self-help documents