Breathe Easy for PTSD and Stress Relief

During a meditation retreat I attended, one of the teachers read a teaching in which the Buddha reminded us to "breathe easy."

It's easy to forget about our breathing. In fact most of us never think about it at all, unless we're having trouble with it. But if you pay attention to your breath, you may be surprised by how much it changes as your state of mind changes. You might also notice that you can change your state of mind by changing the way you breathe.

This is one of the basic elements of Mindfulness – the art of being in the present moment. In fact I often teach breathing techniques and Mindfulness meditation practices for PTSD.

When we're excited, or stressed, we breathe faster and our breath becomes more shallow. When we are relaxed, we are actually breathing more slowly and more deeply.

Often when we're stressed, there's increased chatter in the mind. People report feeling like their mind is "racing." It's like they're being flooded with thoughts. 

This brings us back to Buddha's teaching - breathe easy.

When we slow our breathing, our mind slows with it. We regain a more mindful space. We begin to relax. It's a great way to relieve stress.

This is especially important in working with trauma and grief. In my trauma therapy and grief counseling sessions, I often teach people to slow their breathing to help reduce the stress of traumatic memories and anxiety. When we’re in a traumatic flash back or our trauma or grief has been triggered somehow, we are actually losing touch with the present moment, as mind wanders into the traumatic past, or projects our anxiety into the future. In the midst of PTSD symptoms, this is particularly stressful.

In these moments of high stress, we’re breathing faster, our heart rate is up, our blood pressure is up and we’re pumping adrenaline, which amps up the whole body. The mind starts to race, we may feel flooded with thoughts and feelings and it’s hard to focus.

When you bring your attention to your breathing, the first thing that happens is you get back in touch with your body, which is always in the present moment where you are safe. When you consciously slow down your breathing, the first thing that happens is your breathing slows, which slows your heard rate, your blood pressure comes back down and your adrenalin system goes back to a place of rest. Concentrating on slowing your breathing focuses your mind, so your head clears and it becomes easier to focus.

 Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Take long slow deep breaths, including long exhalations (about ten or so). This will slow your heart rate and help relax your back and shoulder muscles.
  • Take a few minutes to breathe so that your inhalations and exhalations are of equal length (count to five in your head for each in breath and each out breath). This also gradually slows the heart rate.
  • Relax your diaphragm. That’s the muscle below your lungs that helps you breathe in. To do this place your hand in the center of your belly, just above your navel. Take slow deep breaths in a way that pushes your hand outward. This is a particularly good quick fix if you’re feeling anxious.

 At the end of the teaching, the teacher offered us a challenge – what in your life is worth not breathing easy? Sure, there are important issues, stressful events and things that matter. But breathing faster doesn’t help us cope with them. It just adds to our anxiety state, which distracts us from coping with the sources of stress in our lives.

So, breathe easy. You might want to try taking a few minutes a couple of times a day and notice how you’re breathing. Then take a moment to slow down and breathe easy. Or any time you’re feeling stressed and anxious, make a conscious effort to breathe easy. See what happens.

If you would like to learn more about these sorts of practices. You can download my booklet “Self Care Tips for Trauma Survivors” here. You can also find more self-care tips on the Resources page of my Web site. And, of course I’m available if you need more in-depth help. Feel free to contact me at (812) 371-6330, or at ken@insight-counseling.org.

I’m here to help.