Teen Breathe

How breathing exercises can help to relax you and restore your concentration

Breathing is something most people do automatically, without thought or effort. Yet the way you breathe plays a big part in how you feel. What with schoolwork, time with family and friends and practical tasks such as tidying your room, life is often highly stimulating. Add in the sensory distractions of busy streets, social media alerts and everyday background chatter and you might sometimes be left feeling frazzled, overwhelmed and worn out. The great news is that there are some simple breathing techniques that can restore a sense of calm.
WORDS: Simone Scott)

Why breathing exercises can help to reduce stress

In times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system activates what’s known as the fight-or-flight response, causing sensations such as a raised heart rate, racing thoughts and physical tension. Breathing exercises can ease these sensations. If practised regularly, they might even help to prevent them from occurring at all.

What’s great about these techniques is that they can be done almost anywhere and at any time. While they’re particularly useful during times of stress, such as before an exam or after a difficult conversation, you can also make them part of a regular routine.

How to prepare for the breathing exercises

For both exercises here, start by finding a comfortable sitting position, whether that’s on your bed, the floor or a chair. If you needed to, you could even do them in a toilet cubicle at school or any space where you can focus for a little while. Ideally, find a place where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes.

If it feels right for you, close your eyes. Otherwise, have a soft focus on a fixed spot in front of you. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart and take a few moments to notice the sensations of your breath. Keep your mouth gently closed as you breathe slowly and softly through the nose.

Once you’ve finished the exercise, let your breathing return to normal and notice the soothing effects on your body and mind. Be reassured that you can use these exercises whenever you feel you need them.

Two breathing exercises that can help to relax you

1. Belly breathing: Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, this involves using the diaphragm to direct the breath deep into the belly. Think of how infants breathe – their tiny bellies softly rising and falling with each inhale and exhale.

How to do it:

Visualise directing your breath into your hands – as if inflating an imaginary balloon.

Feel your hands move away from your body as you inhale and towards you as you exhale.

Continue breathing in this way for a couple of minutes, keeping the body relaxed.

2. Box breathing: Also known as square breathing, this involves inhaling and exhaling in equal measure, gently holding the breath between each one.

How to do it:

Inhale for a count of four – the pace of this count isn’t so important, as long as it’s comfortable and consistent.

Hold the breath in the belly for an equal count of four.

Exhale for a count of four.

Hold the breath out for a count of four. It might be helpful to visualise a square as you practise, inhaling up one side of the square, holding the breath along the top, exhaling down the other side, and holding along the bottom.

Repeat this cycle, continuing to breathe in this way for a couple of minutes, keeping the counts of four evenly paced and the body relaxed.

What are the health and wellbeing benefits of breathing exercises?

Relaxation: The chatter in the mind is quietened, promoting mental calm, and physical tension is released from the body.

Improved focus and concentration: A quieter mind has more space to focus on the things that really matter, whether that’s an important project, reading a book or playing a game with friends.

Calm energy: Better breathing is more efficient, helping you to feel more energised, yet calm.

Physical strength: The muscles around the belly and lungs are exercised, making them stronger and more efficient. As with all new techniques, take great care to ensure you feel comfortable and stop immediately if it doesn’t feel right for you.

Read more about mental wellbeing in Teen Breathe issue 41.