Just Breath

In the spirit of modeling a wellness mindset, I’ve embraced “The enemy of progress is perfection” for these resources. While in an ideal world, I’d only produce evidence-based, academically sourced content, the reality of my life as a parent and professional demands flexibility. Thus, I share insights from my experiences, learnings, and memory. I prioritize accuracy, so if you spot any errors, please let me know.

Disclaimer: The content here is psycho-educational and/or opinion, and not a replacement for personalized psychotherapy. Each person’s mental health needs are unique; consult a qualified professional for personalized support.

Why does something as natural as breathing seem so complicated?

We are bombarded with instructions… Breathe from your belly. Try diaphragmatic breathing. Keep your shoulders still! Count your breaths. Practice 4-7-8 breathing. Embrace box breathing. Inhale, hold, exhale, hold… The list of breathing ‘exercises’ feels endless. Then there’s breathing advice for yoga, for playing musical instruments, singing, and various other activities. It’s confusing.

Breathing shouldn’t feel so challenging! For many of us, we’re so out of touch with our breath that these activities aren’t calming or even feasible. They might even provoke anxiety.

I suggest a different approach to breathing for mental wellness, a lighter, calmer, awareness of your breath. There are a lot of things happening with our breath, and often we aren’t aware of this complexity – on a conscious level, but also a subconscious level. When it comes to knowing what’s going on or not in our bodies, there is a neurological component, a sort of brain’s map of the body, and areas can lose connection if they are not noticed for a long time. For example, when someone sees a pelvic floor physiotherapist for help with pelvic floor tension, part of the issue may be relaxing muscles, but another part may be about getting the brain to remember there are muscles to relax… connecting to and mapping those muscles.

The Basics of Breath

Inhales and Exhales: the sympathetic system (elevated heart rate, fight, flight… activation) dys-regulates our breathing, and slow long breathing can be used to engage the parasympathetic system (rest and digest, safe and social).

Noticing & Observing: Before trying to change your breath in any way, there are many benefits to simply, with light energy, ease and effortlessness, being with your breath. Noticing it wherever you notice it in your body – your stomach moves, your ribs expand, air flows past your nostrils, through your sinuses and the back of your throat. Spending time with parts of your body, tuning in to the sensations, is very powerful.

What does this have to do with psychotherapy and mental wellness?

When someone asks you to engage in a particular breathing pattern, it can feel disconnected, inaccessible, awkward, weird and ultimately not useful. You may conclude that breath work isn’t your cup of tea and doesn’t work for you. I concluded that! Like many, I was taught to breathe deeply, but that instruction didn’t quite click. I associated deep breathing with expanding my lungs beyond their limits, which seemed impossible. Then, I learned that ‘deep breathing’ meant something else entirely—slower, longer breaths.

There is so much mental health benefit to breath work. With my clients, I like to break down breathing further than those traditional techniques. I help my clients build their awareness of breath, by first just breathing as normal, and working on noticing or observing, moment to moment, the sensations and feelings they have with their breath, the air through their nostrils, and what parts expand and contract.

When “Stop and Smell the Roses” is True

This noticing helps with mental wellness in a couple of ways. It is mindful, it slows you down and brings you into the present moment. It is also a neural mapping, building connection between mind and body. In Pain Reprocessing Therapy we call this Leaning into a Positive Sensation. It’s a way that your brain can learn that you are safe in the moment, as its not possible to be mindful like this when in danger. We can’t stop and smell the roses when running from lion! It turns on the parasympathetic nervous system even without trying to change how you breath.

Over time, we might add more to the practice. I share about lengthening your exhales just a little, by slowing the speed of air coming out, so that your exhale is just a little longer than your inhale. Often that’s as far as we need to go, building awareness of the sensations and slowing the exhale. So, we build that neural connection; brain mapping to body and mindfulness. And then we build the parasympathetic benefits of a longer exhale. And ultimately, these are the goals for all those other breathing techniques meant to help with mental wellness.

And sometimes, it’s not the right time to notice breathing. For those clients, we choose other strategies for engaging calm, and revisit breath if it seems like a good idea later on. There are so many other options.

I come with the perspective that you are the expert on yourself, I am an expert at psychotherapy, and we are both fallible humans. I don’t claim to have all the answers or know better than you. I will share resources, describe concepts and experiences, and contemplate out loud (in writing). The more I learn, the more aware I am of how much I do not know. 

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If you would be interested in exploring what therapy has to offer you, I’m here to help. KC Davis wrote, “Imperfection is required for a good life.” So, begin here and now, where you are already at, and I’ll meet you where you are.

Photo of Shira standing outdoors. She is wearing a red dress and blue cardigan.

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