Mental Health Awareness Month: Deep Breathing

In 2001, I was given a book by Robert Fried, Breathe Well, Be Well: A Program to Relieve Stress, Anxiety, Asthma, Hypertension, Migraine, and Other Disorders for Better Health (1999). My VA doctor, at the time, highly suggested that I learn the breathing techniques to reduce symptoms of PTSD, asthma, and sleeplessness. He also knew that I was a critical thinker who valued evidence, and the book contained lots of evidence-based information, as well as a technique for deep therapeutic breathing. To make the story short, I started using the technique, and I still use it, today. Of course, learning how to breathe differently took some practice, and until I had it down, I was a skeptic.

The information provided in the book was interesting and compelling… and went far beyond the deep breathing technique… so it kept my interest. The book covered the physical aspect of breathing, itself, psychosomatic thinking & personal attitude, muscle relaxation, fear and other forms of anxiety, food’s connection to breathing, pain and other physical problems, and additional methods of reducing stress. For a small book, it packed a punch with very important information, some of which I was surprised could be connected to breathing. I still suggest it to people who suffer with high recommendation.

Now, Dr. Fried’s system is more than breathing. It contains mindfulness thinking, making a contract with yourself to change your attitude, some light exercises, and diaphragm breathing. As a system, it is highly effective, but I have found that the breathing technique, alone, can also be very helpful, because it is easy and with practice can become one of those things that muscle memory will eventually make automatic. The best way to explain what it looks like is what is suggested in the book: Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. If you are using this breathing technique,m your hand on your chest should not move as you breathe, and the hand on your belly should be moving out when you breathe in and in when you breathe out. Your breathing should be connected closely with your diaphragm muscle, which is why the belly is moving, but not the chest.

When I started using this technique, I was unable to go to sleep at night due to anxiety, so I used the technique when I went to bed at night. I would lay on my back with my neck and head lightly supported by a pillow. My right hand was on my chest, and my left on my belly. I would watch my hands to make sure I was doing it right and would slowly breathe in, then slowly breathe out. After about 5 days, I found that I would fall asleep much faster and sleep longer. After a couple of months, I didn’t have to think about it, any more: I just automatically would breathe in that fashion when I put my head on the pillow. At one time, It would take 30-90 minutes to fall asleep, and now, it takes only a couple of minutes, if I use the breathing technique. It has been 18 years, and it still works.

We have to be realistic. Breathing exercises do not work for everyone. Sometimes, people need something different or need to add an additional step to their breathing exercises before it helps. For me, however, it worked lie a charm, still works, and I still suggest it to clients and students, regularly. It can’t hurt to try! I have not looked to see if Robert Fried’s book has been updated since the original, but I still recommend that people read it. It is a wonderful reference for me, and it may be a great one for you, as well.

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