Breathing as a Coping Mechanism for stress or anxiety 

We’ve all heard it before – we’re getting stressed out, and someone tells us – just take a deep breath, calm yourself down. They’re right that deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm our bodies, minds, and hearts. It’s the perfect tool for tackling both adult and child stresses alike, and one of the keys to stopping a child’s meltdown.

But I’ve tried breathing before – it never works!  I still feel stressed/my kid still has a meltdown!

This is something we hear in the therapy room a lot. And this is completely understandable – it’s hard to use deep breathing for the first or second time in the middle of a crisis, or when your child is in the middle of a meltdown.  Imagine you’re learning to play tennis in a thunderstorm: the ball would be flying everywhere, the wind would be pushing you around, the rain would be in your face, making it impossible to focus on learning the technique.  But learning to play tennis on a calm, sunny day is much, much easier.

This is the same with deep breathing. If we try to use deep breathing for the first time in the middle of a crisis (the thunderstorm), it’s going to be impossible for us to get it right. So we need to practice it when we’re already calm and centered (when it’s sunny), and that way it will be helpful for us in times of crisis.

How do I know I’m doing it, right?

Firstly, your body knows how to breathe. It’s been doing it since the very beginning – as a baby, deep belly breathing is all you used to do! So you can trust that your body will know how to do this, and know how to do it right.  When we do deep breathing, there are physical changes that happen in our hearts and minds – our brains will tell our bodies to calm down because it’s a natural consequence of deep breathing.

If you want to help it along, though, there are two key things to remember: to do it for long enough, and for your out-breath to be longer than your in-breath.  

I feel like I’ve been doing it for ages, at least 1 minute, and it’s still not working!

A common reason why deep breathing doesn’t work to calm people down is because they don’t do it for long enough. While 1 minute might feel like a long time (especially for little kids), just think about how much stress or energy you’re trying to tackle – when you’re feeling a 10/10 on the stress scale, chances are you need at least 5-7 minutes of deep breathing to come back to a level head.  Stick with it and you will see the difference.

So I can do it for 5 minutes, breathing in for 4 counts and out for 6 counts?

That’s right!  The key is the outbreak has to be longer than the in-breath – so breathing in for 4 counts and out for 6 counts is perfect.  If you find that really easy, try breathing in for 5 and out for 7 (or in for 6 and out for 8… and so on).  Or, if you find that a bit tricky, you can make it shorter – in for 3 and out for 5. The most important thing is that ‘out’ just has to be longer than ‘in’. That’s the key to unlocking our body’s natural calming response.

Tips for helping young people with their breathing

Practice with a heart-rate monitor on your phone

Kids and teenagers often find it helpful to see the effect of their deep breathing in real-time, and luckily most smartphones these days have heart-rate monitors built-in. Check if your phone has a heart-rate monitor or download one of the many free heart-rate monitor apps available. Next time you’re practicing, use the monitor while doing deep breathing and watch the numbers go down.  This will help reinforce how useful the skill is for young people (and probably for adults too).

Use hand movements or images with young children

For any younger children who need a bit of help, trying adding gentle hand movements or images to deep breathing. For example, you might want to stretch your hands up above your head when breathing in and imagine the sun rising, then bring the hands gently down and imagine the sun setting when breathing out. 

Or, your child may like to imagine holding their favourite food right in front of them and as they breathe in, they can smell all the delicious smells of the food. Or some children like to name the in- and out-breath different names and imagine them as different monsters or creatures – like the in-breath is Big Bill and they’re a large fluffy blue bear, and the out-breath is Little Luke and they’re a small red mouse. 

You will know what your child will connect with, so create something together that is fun and engaging for your child. Every time you practice it, stick with the same movements/image – that way it can become a short-cut if there’s ever a meltdown in the future (you can just say, ‘Okay let’s bring out Big Bill and Little Luke’ – and your kid will know exactly what to do).

Schedule in practice time (together)

For young people and adults alike, it can be hard to practice new skills. One tip here is to schedule it in – for 5 minutes, 5 times a week. Pick a time that makes sense for your schedule. If mornings are just way too busy, but you know that straight after school the kids have a snack, maybe there’s 5 minutes that can fit right after snack time. Or if after school won’t work because everyone goes to sports practice – maybe it’s the 5 minutes that can come after brushing your teeth at night.  (This goes for adults as well – deep breathing for adults is just as helpful and needs just as much practice.) When you’re scheduling it, make it reasonable and suitable for your lifestyle, put a reminder in your calendar or phone, and then practice it together with your child or teenager. 

Then, if a meltdown moment ever happens in the future, you know you’ll have the skills in place to help you and your child ride it out smoothly.

This article was written by Linda Taimre

Provisional psychologist at The Therapy Hub