Using belly breathing to relieve anxiety
Belly breathing is a useful tool to support your child to cope with tiredness and anxiety.
We all need time to relax and belly breathing is wonderful for adults too.
First – a bit about breathing
Of course we must always breathe. It is vital!
But our breathing pattern alters in pattern and rhythm at different times of the day and in different emotional states, for example: sighing in despair, panting with exhaustion, holding our breath in fear and terror.
Usually we breathe automatically, without thinking about it, but we can also alter our breathing pattern at will.
Because of this unique relationship between our thinking and bodily processes, our breathing pattern can play an important role in how much we are affected by stress.
Indeed, breathing is one of the most sensitive indicators or warning signs of stress, because it is such a vital link between our minds and bodies.
By consciously increasing our awareness about breathing and by practising breathing exercises it is possible to:
- improve our sense of well-being
- decrease our level of stress
- help to bring about interconnectedness between our minds and bodies.
We breathe in two different ways:
- Chest breathing
- Abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing.
We usually chest breathe when we are exercising – we see our chest moving upwards and outwards.
But if we constantly use chest breathing, it can make our body tense, as if it’s under stress. This is because activated upper chest muscles can increase feelings of anxiety.
Belly (abdominal or diaphragmatic) breathing
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, which separates our chest and abdomen.
When we breathe in (inhalation) – our diaphragm contracts, flattens and moves downwards, sucking air into our lungs. As our diaphragm moves down, it pushes our abdominal contents down, which forces our abdominal wall outwards.
When we breathe out (exhalation) our diaphragm relaxes and air passes out of our lungs. Our abdominal wall moves upwards helping the air to flow out of our lungs.
Belly breathing yoga activity
- As with any new exercise practice makes perfect. Try to do this exercise twice a day for short periods (with or without your child).
You can then use the technique to calm your mind whenever you need to. It’s probably easier to learn abdominal breathing whilst lying down but once you get the hang of it you can do this form of breathing while seated or standing.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly (abdomen). This will help you to gain an awareness of the movements of your chest and abdomen. See picture below for guidance on where to place your hands.
- Start by taking a slow, deep breath in through your nose imagining that you are sucking in all the air in the room. Hold this breath for about 5-7 seconds (or as long as you are able, do exceed 7 seconds).
As you breathe in, the hand on your tummy should rise higher than the one on the chest. This ensures that your diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of your lungs.
- Now slowly breathe out for a count of 5-7 seconds. As you release the air from your lungs, gently tighten your tummy (abdominal) muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from your lungs.
As you do this, you should feel the hand on tummy moving downwards.
- It is important to remember that to take a deep breath – we need to focus on breathing in, and then make sure we have breathed out fully.
- Repeat this belly breathing cycle 3 or 4 times.
Belly breathing & relaxation with your child
- Find two toy ducks (the non–squeaky kind!) or similar toys and settle down with your child on a soft carpet or mat.
You may wish to listen to some gentle music such as Tatty Bumpkin’s Relax Song
- Start by showing your child what to do. Lie down on your back (you may want to put a cushion under your knees to make your back comfortable) and place one of the ducks on your abdomen.
- Using the belly breathing technique above show your child how you can make the duck on your belly go up and down by only using your breath!
- Some children might find it useful to place their hands on your tummy so they can feel it go up and down. This can be a lovely ‘bonding’ experience for both of you.
- Then guide your child to lie down with you and place the other toy duck or a toy on their tummy. Encourage your child to try and make their duck move gently up and down on their tummy by taking deeper breaths.
Watch your child’s breathing to check that:
- As they breathe IN their tummy is moving UPWARDS and OUTWARDS – so they are lifting their duck up with their tummy.
- As they breathe OUT their tummy moves inwards and downwards – so letting their duck fall.
- If your child is doing the movements the other way round i.e. as they breathe in they suck their tummy in – gently try to correct them.
- Let your child do 3 or 4 breaths in a row, then take a rest so as not to become dizzy.
Belly breathing for self-regulation & relieving anxiety
If your child is older they may want to try belly breathing whilst sitting up or standing so that they can use this kind of breathing to calm themselves whenever they are feeling anxious or stressed. Below is an exercise your child can practise so they belly breathe whilst sitting (before starting an exam for example).
Balloon belly breathing technique for children
- Find a supportive seat for your child, ideally one with arms, and encourage them to sit up as straight as they can.
- Guide your child to:
- Put both their hands on their tummy.
- Then keep their mouth closed and take a slow breath in through their nose.
- Tell your child to imagine, as they breathe in, that there is a balloon in their bellyand they are trying to fill it up with air.
- Encourage your child to keep breathing in until they think the balloon in their tummy has enough air inside. Don’t encourage your child to breathe in too much as they may then find it hard to stay relaxed.
Your child should be feeling their hands on their tummy are moving outwards – point this out to them.
- When your child feels their ‘belly balloon’ is full of air encourage them to imagine they have let go of the balloon and the air is rushing out!
Guide your child to breathe out slowly through their mouth (with pursed lips). They should feel that their hands & belly button are coming back towards their spine. Guide your child to do 4 or 5 breaths like this and then to breathe normally.
The benefits of belly breathing for you & your child
As your child concentrates on ‘abdominal breathing’ and relaxes they will:
- Increase awareness of their breath & its effect on their body
When your child takes deeper breaths, their breathing and heart rate will become slower and this in turn will help your child to calm down.
Tummy breathing is a great skill to learn at a young age as it becomes harder to co-ordinate this movement as we get older.
- Learn the skill of ‘relaxation’
It is never too early for your child to become more aware of how their body feels when they are ‘quiet’ for a while. When we relax we often find it easier to think – it is the same for your child. Perhaps encourage them to think back on their day. What have they done or maybe what would they like to do?
Reflection & thinking time is vital for learning & helps develop an imaginative & creative mind. Your child will start to think not just ‘what is’ but ‘what if?!’ Leaders, artists & entrepreneurs all think creatively.