Belly breathing

A natural cure for anxiety and stress: belly breathing


In 1982, during my first stint in graduate school, I learned a simple but powerful breathing technique as a form of meditation. Abdominal breathing, or “belly breathing” if you prefer, is an excellent way to calm your body when you feel stressed or anxious. In my own life, I’ve returned to the practice again and again over the years, during times of distress or challenge. But I also teach it in my psychotherapy practice. It’s especially helpful for people who struggle with panic attacks and anxiety. I’d like to teach it to you now.


Make sure you’re sitting comfortably in your chair...close your eyes....for the first few moments, begin to pay attention to your breathing...don’t try to do anything, just notice the air coming in, and going out...

...after a few moments, begin breathing in through you nose, and out through your mouth...breath in, breath out...don’t move forward until you get the hang of this...let the air come all the way into your lungs, almost as if each breath filled you up all the way to the bottom of your toes, and then let the air out, slowly, gently...

(If your breathing is full, your belly should move up and down. You can test this by placing your hand on your abdomen as your breath).

...you may notice that your thoughts wander while you breath...that’s okay, that’s normal... but now, with each breath, each time you exhale, I want you to silently say the word “one” to yourself...

...breath in, breath out, and silently say the word “one” each time you let the breath come out through your mouth...

...there one more thing to do while you’re exhaling...each time you breath out, let your body go slack...just let the tension in your body fall away...

...breath in through you nose, and breath out through you mouth, silently saying the word “one” to yourself, and letting the tension in your body fall away...

...continue breathing like this for time, eyes closed...remember, when you thoughts wander--and they will--gently go back to “one”...

..after a time, open your eyes and slowly look around....you should feel refreshed...

It’s no accident that most of the world’s great religious traditions have incorporated some form of meditation into their spiritual practices. Meditation, of which this breathing technique is a form, provides the practitioner with a deep sense of calm. This has been known for hundreds of years; it’s only recently that scientists have taken an interest in studying the practice empirically. As it turns out, science has discovered what spiritual practitioners have known all along: meditation works.

The effects are both immediate and long-term. Once you manage a certain level of proficiency with belly breathing, it will make you feel deeply calm inside, at peace. But if you practice it regularly, there is good evidence to suggest that you’ll also experience health benefits as well.

Belly breathing is a simple skill to learn, but it does require a bit of practice to become proficient at it. When we are not engaged in productive, purposeful thought, our minds naturally wander. This seems to be the normal state of affairs. Unfortunately, during times of stress or anxiety, our thoughts drift to worries, concerns, or items on our to-do lists. This effect of this sort of thinking is increased physiological arousal. We all need a way to quiet ourselves. Deep, replenishing breaths bring arousal down.

By focusing on a neutral word, like “one,” we sidestep the mind’s tendency to get lost in emotionally-loaded thoughts. A variation on this tactic is to count with each exhale: breath in, breath out (1), breath in, breath out (2), breath in, breath out (3)...and so on. When your thoughts wander off, start counting over again. Most people can’t get to 5 without their thoughts wandering away. In my case, it took me almost a year of practice before I could consistently reach 5 without having to re-start. This is normal. It takes time to train your mind to be still. Of course, breathing also can also teach you something about patience, but that’s another post...

Copyright 2008-2016 John Gibson. All rights reserved.