Blog post

How to use mindful breathing to reduce stress and anxiety

Having a constantly busy mind can cause us to lose sight of the importance of the present moment, leading to stress and anxiety. In this blog, Dr William Van Gordon, from the Centre for Psychological Research at the University of Derby, discusses how we can use mindful breathing to reconnect ourselves with the present.

By Dr William Van Gordon - 9 October 2018

Most people have very busy minds. This is different from saying that most people are very busy because, often when we are trying to rest or are doing very little, the mind is still very active. Having a busy or stressed mind makes it difficult for us to settle our awareness in the present moment.

The reason we want to try to remain aware of the present moment is because, really and truly, this is the only place where we can fully experience life. The future will never materialise, and so worrying about it is not a productive use of our time. The future never materialises because it is always the present. We can never be in the future and we can never predict with 100% accuracy how it will unfold. Likewise, the past is history and no longer exists. It is only a memory and so holding onto the past is equally unfruitful.

Anchoring ourselves through our breathing

One tried and tested means of slowing the mind down is to 'anchor' ourselves in our breathing. By gently resting our awareness on our breathing, we give the mind a reference point so that it becomes difficult for us to be distracted or carried away by thoughts and feelings. The breath becomes a place where the mind can return each time it wanders off or becomes anxious.

You might think that becoming aware of your breath is an easy or obvious thing to do. However, be completely honest and ask yourself: how many times during the day are you truly aware of the fact that you are breathing? How often do you stop and think 'I am alive and I am breathing in and out?' Because breathing happens automatically, most people take it for granted.

Breathing in and out is something that we are (hopefully) always doing, and so bringing our attention to the breath should not inconvenience us or require a large time commitment. Also, practising mindful breathing doesn't require us to force or modify our breathing in any way. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord.

A metaphor that might help explain this notion is that of a garden fish pond. Every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and disturbed. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes still and clear again. Thus, we don't have to interfere with either the breath or the mind in order for them to become calm and clear. All we have to do is sit in stillness and observe them.

Mindful breathing

When we rest our attention on the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath, we should do so by using a broad and generous (rather than a narrow) form of attention. Mindful breathing requires us to be aware of each and every part of each and every breath, but in a way that enables us to be completely open to, and aware of, everything else we encounter. This is why the breath is referred to as an 'anchor'. Its purpose is to provide stability so that we can embrace and engage with the present moment, not escape from it.

Based on the assumption that the average respiratory rate of a healthy adult is approximately 15 breaths per minute, we breathe in and out 21,600 times each day. This means that each day, we have 21,600 opportunities to cultivate mindful awareness as a means of nourishing our inner being. In fact, each in-breath and out-breath could be thought of as an entirely new phase of our lives. We breathe in and are fully aware of all parts of our in-breath. We are aware of its texture, its weight, its flavour and its temperature. We feel the in-breath as it enters the lungs and causes them to expand. Likewise, we experience each part of the out-breath as it flows out of the body and dissolves into the air around us. We observe how our out-breath is carried by the wind and gradually absorbed by the world and its inhabitants.

Practising observing our breathing

The more we practise breath awareness, the more we become attuned to all that happens in a single breath cycle. It is almost as though time begins to expand and the present moment starts to last for longer. Each breath in and out becomes a meaningful and enjoyable part of our life. This is a generous way to live and breathe, and it allows us to continuously shed any stress that may have accumulated

At first, the practice of observing the breath requires deliberate effort and it is easy to lose awareness. Don't worry or chastise yourself if you do. Upon losing awareness all we have to do is recognise that our attention has gone astray and then gently return our awareness back to the cycle of breathing. In fact, each time we notice that we have lost concentration and drifted into mindlessness, we should quietly congratulate ourselves for having recognised that the mind has wandered off again. Becoming aware of the mind's tendency to be distracted is one of the first signs that we are making progress and that our practice is moving in the right direction.

Although the practice of mindful breathing requires deliberate effort and can be a change from the way we normally live our lives, with sustained practice, remaining aware of the breath becomes a natural thing to do. After we have tasted the benefits of breath awareness, we begin to see just how exposed we were to stress, anxiety, and exhaustion before we adopted the practice of mindful living.

The benefits of mindful breathing

When we are attending to our breathing correctly, the whole body becomes light and energised - as though we are carried by a calming wind that sustains us wherever we go. This is consistent with scientific investigations where it has been shown that conscious breathing facilitates relaxation and leads to a slowing-down of the heart rate, respiratory rate, perspiration rate, and other bodily functions controlled by the involuntary nervous system.

Paying attention to our breathing enables us to relax into the present moment. Whatever we experience, we observe it, taste it and enjoy it. But we also let go of it. We breathe in, noticing and experiencing our external environment, and we breathe out, noticing and experiencing our internal, psychological environment. Sounds come and go, sights come and go, smells come and go, sensations come and go, and thoughts and feelings come and go.

Whatever happens, we remain with our breathing and let the present moment unfold around us. We observe the present moment and we also participate in it. So long as we are consciously breathing, the present moment becomes our home and we are never lost.

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About the author

Dr William Van Gordon

Dr William Van Gordon
Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology

Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology, Dr William Van Gordon is a Chartered Psychologist and international expert in the research and practice of meditation and mindfulness.

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