November 15, 2022

To Breathe or Not To Breathe

I see many children and teens who, when I mention the word ‘BREATHE’ for the first time, roll their eyes or look away, totally uninterested. I can understand why……. It seems they’ve been told by parents, teachers, or well-meaning others to breathe whenever they are experiencing an anxious or nervous moment or feeling overwhelmed. It’s almost impossible when our stress response system has taken over to think about and activate what we need to do at that moment, and the words of others, particularly if it comes in the form of a command, such as “BREATHE!”, can actually appear quite threatening.

In this post, I will share with you the type of breathing we can do to bring ourselves out of the stress response and back into our Ventral Vagal Pathway (or the Green Pathway, which is much easier to remember). Whether we are having an anxious moment or a full panic attack, our sympathetic nervous system (Red Pathway) takes over, preparing our body for fight or flight. It’s our survival response, and we need it in moments of life and death. The challenge is that our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) doesn’t understand that speaking in front of the class, or taking that test isn’t a moment of life or death. It responds in exactly the same way. Our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, with a longer inhale and shorter exhale: just as we experience when we have finished a run or a sporting match. Our heart starts racing and our body heats up, making our face turn red, or our palms sweat. In order to bring our body into a calmer state, we need to flip our breathing style, and focus on creating a shorter inhale and a longer exhale. When we can do this, we send a direct message to our ANS to say that we are safe. 

Let’s try it….

The Long Exhale Breathe

  • Inhale for the count of three (through your nose)
  • Hold for a second
  • Exhale slowly for the count of six (through your mouth – like you are blowing through a straw – really pushing the breath out)
  • Hold for a second

Repeat this for 5-10 rounds, and note how much your body responds to it. 

Is it really that easy?

Yes and no! An important note about helping the body shift into its Green Pathway is that when we are in the middle of an anxious moment, it’s not very easy for us to regulate our own state. Younger children, in particular, do not yet have the brain development required to emotionally self-regulate, and so we need something called co-regulation to support us into that Green Pathway and back to feeling safe in our body again. 

As a parent, teacher, or friend, you can co-regulate for someone who is in the middle of an anxious moment or panic attack by staying close to them, letting them know in a calm, soothing voice that you will stay with them, and then doing the Long Exhale Breath for them – quite loudly, so that they can hear your breath. Our autonomic nervous systems actually talk to each other, so they will feel your ANS going into its Green Pathway, and this will allow theirs to follow. 

It seems so simple, but it is one of the most effective parenting hacks that I know. Simply telling someone to ‘breathe’ is not going to work – it can even exacerbate the situation. Hence, I get the eye-roll when I mention breathing. Without understanding why this particular type of breathing can work, it doesn’t resonate. When children and teens understand the science behind it, they are more willing to try it. 

This works incredibly well for teachers also when your class is feeling a little out of control. Get everyone doing the Long Exhale together and feel that Red energy shift back into Green. 

With Gratitude